Thinking out loud about grimdark

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to discuss the “death” of grimdark fantasy in a round table at Nerds of a Feather. Joining me were the moderator and editor, The G., Justin Landon, and Foz Meadows. In a fully unintentional (and somewhat unfortunate) turn of events, all three members of the round table had similar perspectives on the topic, creating a discussion that tilted heavily in disfavour of the Internet’s most divisive fantasy sub-genre.

My response, which was written in a way that was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and a caricature of an idea that I have about the genesis of the term “grimdark”, and the danger of applying it liberally across so many of the genre’s novels, instead came across as brash and dismissive. Put against a more balanced panel, I might have been more successful, but as it was my point was lost behind fart metaphors.

In the interim, Nerds of a Feather has since hosted a second round table that featured several staff writers, most of whom are fans of the genre. It provided a healthy counterpoint to the first round table. Mark Lawrence gathered together some authors to talk about grimdark. Steven Erikson discussed the topic in depth on /r/fantasy. On top of this, grimdark was discussed at length on several message boards.

Many salient points were made, and it is obvious that the issue is much more divisive and muddy than any one of the discussions can fully do justice to on its own.

My opinion is formed from two separate but intertwined thoughts: a) grimdark as a label for a sub-genre exists only because a niche corner of fandom (located mostly online) perpetuates it, and b) grimdark as a shorthand for a collection of themes, tropes, devices, and narrative frames that have been core components of fantasy since its inception.

The human condition is timeless.

I still don’t believe that grimdark has or does stand on its own as a sub-genre of fantasy. It’s too broad an idea and it’s too easy to define books into and out of the concept based on your interpretation of the word. At the end of the day, genre labels are marketing tools that help bookstores place books in the right area of their floor plan, and for Amazon to create bestseller lists. I don’t think we’ll ever see a grimdark section on Amazon and I don’t think publishers or authors will be using the term for their books five years from now. However, I think the core themes and tropes that define grimdark have been around nearly as long as fictional narratives and will continue to be an important tool in the fantasy writer’s toolbox as long as fiction exists. The human condition is timeless.

I’d like to use this space to examine the discussion about grimdark, and to refocus my own thoughts on the term by exploring how I believe it’s most useful to both readers and authors.

I have trouble taking the label seriously when readers start applying it to works by Scott Lynch, George R.R. Martin, or Robin Hobb—I see this happening more an more frequently, most recently in a rebuttal to the Nerds of a Feather round table on Grimdark Magazine. All of these authors incorporate elements and themes commonly associated with grimdark, but their works are often too broad to fit into one sub-genre—whether that’s dark fantasy, military fantasy, epic fantasy or grimdark. Doubly, the authors have written such a wide variety of work that, even if you submit to classifying one of their novels or series as grimdark, it’s almost impossible to apply the label to their entire library.

Let’s quickly look at my interpretation of these three authors:

  • Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice puts Fitz through the ringer, but the follow-up sequel, The Liveship Traders, is about as far from grimdark as you can ask for. The same can be said of The Soldier Son trilogy.
  • George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has several sections/storylines that could be labeled as grimdark, most notably Jon Snow’s time with the Night’s Watch, where he very literally fights against the darkness alongside the dregs of humanity (who, as it turns out, aren’t half bad) and Arya’s flight after the events of A Game of Thrones. Bran Stark’s story, however, has much more in common with a traditional epic fantasy travelogue/quest structure, and Sansa navigates a labyrinth of political intrigue where battles are fought with precise wordplay behind raised hands. There are elements of historical fiction to Dany’s conquest of the eastern lands.
  • I have a hard time even understanding how someone can label Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series as grimdark. There are certainly some scenes throughout the series that will make your skin crawl, but can a book be defined into a sub-genre because of a few scenes here-or-there? No more than it can be defined out for the same reason.

If you ask me, the idea of lumping these novels into the same bag as Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns or Glen Cook’s The Black Company feels unwieldy and unfair to all involved. Not based on quality—they’re all accomplished and successful novelists—but they are all vastly different series tonally, thematically, and structurally.

To my mind, Hobb, Martin, and Lynch don’t write grimdark because I can’t draw connections between the novels and the label in ways that are at all useful or definable. If those series are grimdark, I can think of a million more that fit the bill: Kerr’s Deverry series, Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy, N.K. Jemisin’s Nightblood duology, or C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy all feature elements that could define them as grimdark. This speaks to the slippery and subjective definition of the word.

It’s fine if the sub-genre wants to claim some of broader fantasy’s most successful and lauded authors, but where does it stop? If one reader can bring Martin into the discussion, can I write him out?

This fluid narrative is a problem.

One oft-cited and fair criticism of this approach is that it becomes too convenient to define your favourite authors into or out of grimdark by warping the idea into such a subjective ball that your point proves itself.

Jemmy tackles this issue directly during a follow-up round table at Nerds of a Feather:

The problem with labels is that they destroy inclusivity. They allow people who dislike the term “grimdark” to define out of the genre the very books that grimdark fans see as essential reading. Is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire grimdark? What about Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen? N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology? The answer depends on our pre-existing notions of grimdark as a genre or style of fantasy. Personally, I am open to as wide a definition as possible for the genre. That way, the best works of literature could never be classified out of the genre, and grimdark would never be mistaken as a mere pejorative term for excessively dark, rapey, torturey, malevolent splatterporn (although the terrible term “grimdark” makes it particularly susceptible to such interpretations). And the books that wallow too deeply in betrayal, rape, or violence would simply be dismissed as “bad literature.”

I’m in ultimate agreement that the biggest issue with grimdark is that the label means too many things to too many different people, allowing it to live on as both a sub-genre and a pejorative. Jemmy continues, and makes a most salient point:

Sure, we can say that grimdark is as grimdark does, but I am not convinced that many authors actually claim to be writing grimdark. More to the point, even the author doesn’t have the final say on whether his/her novel is grimdark. It is the audience, the readership and fanbase, and the discussions that develop within the industry itself that attribute these limiting labels to works of fiction.

I don’t believe that many authors, certainly not the ones that popularized grimdark, actively set out to write under the umbrella in the first place. This is a point that I attempted to make in my round table response, but it was lost behind the poorly-chosen sarcastic tone.

Author Anna Smith-Spark very directly and concisely sums up grimdark, its usefulness to readers, and challenges the idea that it could ever die:

‘Grimdark’ is basically a nice shorthand that people understand and recognise and that helps people form some kind of sense of community and shared experience. That’s really all it means. I didn’t sit down to write a grimdark novel, but if describing it as grimdark makes more sense of it to others, then that’s got to be good. People like communities, labelling things, sharing identities — that’s how we make society. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that.
And as for it being dead — literary genres don’t die. They may get more or less fashionable, but they don’t ‘die’. People have always written very dark things, partly to make the point that the world is dark and awful and maybe we should do something about it. Euripides’ Bacchae and Trojan Women are dark beyond belief. The genre may get less fashionable, but people will still be writing and reading it.

So, then, grimdark doesn’t belong to authors, but to readers—at least in the broadest sense. I do believe there is a way that it can be useful for authors, which I will get to in a moment, but first, there’s the issue of authorial intent superseding that of the reader.

What concerns me, and was recently echoed by Steven Erikson in an essay he posted to Reddit’s /r/fantasy, is the idea of authors trying to take the genre for themselve, thus opening the doors to Jemmy’s “books that wallow too deeply in betrayal, rape, or violence.” With the popularization of the sub-genre, I worry that the subtlety that buoys grimdark’s most widely accepted volumes—Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Glen Cook’s Black Company series, or Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire—will be lost, replaced by a caricature: ultra-violent and nihilistic epic fantasies chasing the market.

I hope I’m wrong, but Kameron Hurley believes it might already be happening:

What inevitably happens, though, is that imitators who come after start to water down the original ideas behind the backlash, and instead of a nuanced exploration of human frailty and complexity, we end up with nihilistic heroes who kick puppies and murder people on page one and call it deep and serious. That sort of stuff gets exhausting after a while, and I say that as someone who was exhausted by the crapsack world I created for my own GOD’S WAR series after three books. I may have created complex and layered people, but writing in a world on the edge of ruin for eight years started to feel like a grind. By contrast, writing about genocide and parallel worlds in THE MIRROR EMPIRE felt like a groovy carnival fun ride. My grim has become a little more weird to compensate for burnout.

Erikson also refutes the idea that grimdark is simply tragedy set in a fantasy world. “If [grimdark] was indeed tragedy, then there would have been no discussion of ‘Grimdark’ at all; rather, we’d all be discussing the resurgence of tragedy in Fantasy,” he said. “We’re not, primarily because there are very, very few tragedies in modern writing, and especially in Fantasy.”

Where tragedy often relies on the reader forming a sympathetic relationship with the protagonist, Erikson supposes that a defining facet of grimdark is the anti-hero—the “unfeeling human in the midst of a collapsing world.”

Modern survival is earned by the disposal of all feeling, each and every hero becoming the avenging hand of God, and the tens of thousands dead amidst collapsed buildings is simply a backdrop to walk out from, long-coat billowing.

This interpretation, which is often, though not always, how I interpret the novels associated with grimdark, is a distressing look at how we deal with the challenges that we face as a society. Sure, it’s a big part of who we are, and those anti-heroes exist in every major conflict in human history, but when it comes to fiction, and specifically fantasy fiction, I feel like there is room for more light. For hope to be peppered with darkness, rather than the other way around. My bias for more hopeful fiction, or at least fiction that is less viscerally upsetting, shows here, and perhaps skews my opinion too much to ever attempt an objective understanding of grimdark.

Juliette E. McKenna argues that there’s an inherent emotional divide between Erikson’s anti-hero and readers, creating a narrative experience that eschews the bond between reader and protagonist and fills that void with visceral and shocking content.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

I will read about violence if it serves a purpose to a story—I’ve enjoyed many of the core contemporary grimdark novels—but if gratuitous violence is a prerequisite for a sub-genre. Count me out.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with Erikson when he reads a different answer into the question of grimdark’s rising popularity:

If Grimdark serves as a reflection of our times, with its cold-hearted nihilism and hints of despair, I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re not ready for Fantasy literature to reflect something else, something a bit brighter, something that […] will resurrect hope as something more than a fool’s pipe-dream. Doom can be exhausting, and revelling in violence seems both cold comfort and a dubious escape.

Hurley believes that the market is already responding in this direction, citing the recent success of Katherine Addison and Robert Jackson Bennett:

I do think folks are hungry for less bleak epic fantasy that shows actual complexity instead of just “bad guys do good things sometimes!” or “good guys do bad things sometimes!” There’s been a lot of chatter about the hopefulness of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, and CITY OF STAIRS certainly brought back the awe and wonder of fantasy without sacrificing the raw emotion and bloody monster fights that fantasy readers love. It also showed some real complexity of culture, characters, and settings that we just aren’t seeing as much as epic fantasy has become watered down.

I’d add Elizabeth Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy to that list as well. It is at times brutal, but the thread of hope, of good people banding together against darkness, is tied together by the awe and wonder that Hurley speaks of. “Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions,” McKenna said, proposing that the purest narratives include elements of hope and despair in balanced parts. “Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom.”

In response to Erikson, fantasy author Janny Wurts makes an interesting observation about the danger of the way that readers, especially young readers, might misinterpret some of the core grimdark tenets:

Readers of fantasy and SF can be drawn to it for many reasons: some are thinkers, some are idea generators, and some come to this feast simply because they are lacking something in their ‘real lives’ and they are seeking answers or escape. The question becomes: what dissatisfied part of ourselves is thirsty for a different experience? What is the itch that wants scratching, and is that itch mature or just young, exuberant, and unaware?
Because the genre is so wide, you are dead right to question the light handling of serious matters. These are issues I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering, also, and even, exploring in stories and novels. Bringing that adult perspective in, though, has a cost: it creates IMPACT and it will generate emotion that the readership may well NOT be prepared to experience, feel, and finally sort.

Ultimately, however, if you accept that fiction is an attempt to understand the human condition, Wurts, like McKenna, recognizes the value of writing about the parts of humanity that are difficult to accept. Wurts expands on her thought:

Stories define us: they are the essence of our beliefs set in motion, and our ‘myths’ define our society’s values. Human beings are damned complex — they have multiple identities — people act one way alone, another way in a crowd, another way under threat, another way at a party and still another way at work or at a job interview. The mosaic of thought and feeling that comprise us in any given moment is an ever changing landscape, never repeated, never without meaning IF we pause to examine it.
The psyche is wider still.

“Grimdark is essentially an aesthetic that sees itself in argument with a type fantasy that doesn’t really exist,” A.P. Canavan wrote in response to one of the Nerds of a Feather round tables. “Twee consolatory fantasies with Blonde, blue-eyed farmboy chosen ones were never as common as people seem to think they were, and they are even rarer today.” Nailing books down into one genre or another is unfair and harmful in that is reduces all of the author’s efforts into a single word. Saying all grimdark is “cold-hearted nihilism and hints of despair” is no more fair than saying that all Sword & Sorcery is barbaric hack ‘n slash, or all epic fantasy is twee. In fact, if you examine books on both sides of the fence, you find themes and tropes crossing from one field to the next with aplomb.

For fun, a few examples using authors already referenced in this piece:

  • Locke Lamora is compelling because, though he’s a selfish sonuvabitch, he will turn on a dime to sacrifice himself for the greater good of those he loves.
  • Terry Brooks’ novels often feature a high body count by the time good wins out. One of his books even features an off-scene rape and its emotional fallout. These are elements that are often cited as being ‘grimdark’, but nobody will argue that Brooks comes close to falling under the umbrella.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is rife with thematic explorations of war and fallen heroes. There are pieces scattered throughout the entirety of the novel that are wholly reflected by contemporary grimdark novels. However, at its core, it’s a black and white novel about good versus evil.

Meanwhile, Reddit user Wearywarrior eloquently describes grimdark:

The poignant beauty of grimdark is that in the face of overwhelming horror, unstoppable evil, our heroes somehow manage to muster their courage and stand. It’s the ultimate expression of courage, in my opinion, to stare into the maw of evil, shout defiance and fight harder.

What I find most compelling about this description is that it can also very aptly describe Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. If grimdark is about finding hope in humanity’s muck, about finding the courage to face overwhelming horror, which I believe it is, then fantasy has been exploring grimdark’s battlefield for decades or longer. If Tolkien was writing to many of the same tenets as grimdark, then what does that say of all the novels that cascaded down from the archetype he modernized?

One could even argue that you can dissect the grey morass of morality without relying on violence at all.

Anything can be called ‘grimdark,’ even dear old Gramma, given enough interpretation.

In response to Mark Lawrence’s round table, R. Scott Bakker, author of the Prince of Nothing series, said, “Grimdark is a bag. All genres are bags.” It’s a good analogy, but I think it’s inherently flawed. Placing items in a bag is indiscriminate and subjective, which makes it difficult to define the sub-genre to a point that we can use it in conversation and know we’re talking about the same thing. Bakker admits to this point, “The question of what can be put into this bag is simply a question of interpretative juice. Anything can be called ‘grimdark,’ even dear old Gramma, given enough interpretation.”

Initially I began to think of grimdark in a way that was very close to Bakker’s, but instead of a bag I visualized a toolbox. As we all try to define grimdark, we readers stick books into the toolbox as we see fit. Generally, we disagree with what belongs in the box.

Instead, I’ve come to think that it’s more useful to look at the analogy from the opposite perspective. Grimdark is not a toolbox, it’s a set of tools — a collection of themes and set pieces, tropes, and character archetypes—that, in the hands of a great writer, can be used to illustrate parts of the human condition that are vital to storytelling without relying on every piece in the whole toolbox. Just like the Hero’s Journey allows us to better understand the process of growing up, or Down the Rabbit Hole challenges readers to examine the real world through a lens of often absurdest humour or horror, grimdark can be applied in subtle and sweeping ways to elicit a response from a reader. It’s too nuanced a concept, has too many layers and variations, to be boiled down to a label applied willy-nilly across so many books and authors. Instead, let’s open it up as a facet of writing available to all writers, whether they’re writing about war and violence, broken families, grand adventures and dark lords. Anything. Let’s recognize that grimdark is a new name for an old concept. Let’s ditch the label entirely.

Grimdark is not one toolbox, it is six billion tools.

Above, I wonder at the label being applied to the works of Scott Lynch, George R.R. Martin, and Robin Hobb. I don’t believe that their works fall into a grimdark-labeled toolbox, but instead they all use elements of the concept as tools to impart necessary emotions onto the reader, or advance the plot along in certain ways. “Grimdark is the six billion shades of grey that represents every human being’s perspective on life,” said Adrian Collins of Grimdark Magazine. I agree. Grimdark is not one toolbox, it is six billion tools.

So, in that sense, I take back what I initially said. Grimdark is not dead, because, as both detractors and supporters of the movement agree, the elements that comprise grimdark have been integral to fiction—not just fantasy fiction—since the concept was first conceived many thousands of years ago. To quote Karen Miller, “there will always be a place in the world for stories that shine a light into the darkness of the human soul … while hopefully remembering that where there is violence and brutality and evil there can also be honour and courage and hope.”