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The Value of Grit
February 28, 2013 11:37 AM   Subscribe

One person’s disheartening pessimism that threatens the heart of western civilisation is another’s thought provoking deconstruction of conventions. Joe Abercrombie discusses the value of grit and grimdark in modern fantasy in response to some criticism regarding the state of the genre.

The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists previously on the Blue.
posted by never used baby shoes (67 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm about fifty pages from the end of Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. It makes for fast reading, and I'm mostly enjoying it, but...

I feel like one of the things that Abercrombie is saying in the book is "revenge isn't worth it", and I agree, but it raises the question of what is worth it. And with Abercrombie and a lot of the current batch of fantasy writers, the answer seems to be "nothing".
posted by Parasite Unseen at 11:57 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


from the third link (criticism) ...

and leads some to rail against "Grimdark" as a whole, decrying the concept as ridiculous attempts at edginess (typically by teenagers)

As with all despairing and baleful fantasies, the allure does seem to diminish with maturity. When I was say, seventeen, it was easy to get a thrill out of imagining myself in a suitably apocalyptic future where all the petty bullshit of everyday getting-along-with-people could be swept aside by the fierce struggle to just survive (and with cool weapons). But jump ahead a decade or two and it's hard to work the same fantasy ... particularly if you've got kids, aging parents, maybe a bum hip that requires medical attention.

The older I get, the more I find my edge in actual history -- the stuff that humans have actually endured (or been destroyed by). Which makes gritty dark fantasy problematic. Ultimately, it seems to lack imagination.
posted by philip-random at 12:04 PM on February 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


The best defense against an accusation of grimdark for Martin is Barbara Tuchman's book A Distant Mirror, where she demonstrates with great thoroughness that Martin wasn't exaggerating about just how shitty life as a peasant could be when a bunch of nobles and knights decide to fight over a throne. I've read Donaldson's Gap series, and it truly does qualify for Harlan Ellison's dismissal as fin de siecle splatterporn; ASOIAF doesn't. It's not voyeuristic in its violence; it's not creative in its suffering. It's just that, as Armstrong observes (and Tuchman documents) life sometimes really is that shitty.
posted by fatbird at 12:10 PM on February 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


In a similar vein: I'm enjoying my return to 2000AD after twenty years: I'm less enjoying the fact that they now feel able to depict rape. Which, you know, if it were a story about rape, would be okay, if not something I'd necessarily enjoy.

But rape to illustrate that This Guy Is A Bad Guy, or that the General Situation Is Quite Lawless? Ugh ugh ugh. Nice illustrations of the women being raped of course, shapely thighs and breasts. And all in colour now! Comics have improved, haven't they?

There's a lot of sexual violence in couple of Margaret Atwood's post-apocalypse science fiction novels: I didn't enjoy reading it, it felt very truthful, and it was integral to the plot and world, I thought. So I'm not saying No Rape In SF Or Fantasy. But it makes me very very uncomfortable, and I wish it were rarer.
posted by alasdair at 12:13 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I haven't read this author. But I do find that there's a tendency lately to use fantasy as a setting, then write in whatever genre you feel like, which makes the fantasy part really pointless. Fantasy is a style as well as a setting, and it doesn't work equally well with every possible permutation of writing. My favorite authors in this genre do something really special with it that can't be done with other genres, and that's really the way to approach any tool: what is it BEST for?
posted by selfnoise at 12:15 PM on February 28, 2013


It sounds like the fantasy authors are doing their job. The idea that nothing can be done is the biggest fantasy of all.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:44 PM on February 28, 2013


My favorite authors in this genre do something really special with it that can't be done with other genres, and that's really the way to approach any tool: what is it BEST for?

For crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women, of course.

Buuut seriously... I love Abercrombie's stuff. Yes, I find myself thinking, I get it, Joe -- adventure/revenge/war actually sucks as I tear through the books, but then he has a scene that blows my hair back (e.g., the one in The Heroes where he follows a person in a battle until he dies, then follows whoever killed that person until he dies, then follows whoever killed that person, and so on and so forth), and I suddenly remember that the man has some ability to write. I would put his work (in total) against anyone in any genre since Tim O'Brien for illustrating the truth of war. (With maybe a nod toward World War Z.)

Of course, when I get to the end of any Abercrombie book, I have to go find a Carl Hiaasen novel, so I can cleanse my palate without getting the bends as I rise out of the grimdepths.

Grimdark is not killing fantasy. Nothing is killing fantasy. Nothing can. Laurell K. Hamilton's romance-but-with-vampires/werewolves/zombies bullshit spawn didn't do it. The regular re-eruptions of Tolkien ripoffs (the herpes of the genre) didn't do it. This trend will pass, and we'll see, I don't know, a return of Elves and Druids or some such nonsense, and someone will complain about that in a decade. We get the genre fiction we deserve.
posted by Etrigan at 12:47 PM on February 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Tom Simon has a singularly unimpressive grasp of history in his essay. He's simply wrong on a number of counts. Which makes his conclusion suspect at best.
posted by Justinian at 1:06 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Joe Abercrombie & Patrick Rothfuss are my current go-to authors when someone asks me what they should read after having become interested in fantasy as a result of watching Game of Thrones.

Joe Abercrombie does not deviate too far from the traditional path. We've seen these heroes before, we recognize the old wizard who plays things close to his chest, the warrior who is just tired of it all. But the brilliance of Abercrombie is that he makes these characters come alive. I've met these types before but they've always lacked something. Abercrombie gives them a soul, makes you believe.

Patrick Rothfuss is J.K. Rowling but grown the fuck up. There is wonder and magic but none of the stupidity of Harry Potter. There is a school of magic which is filled with all kinds of delightful magical devices, powers, etc. But there is also consequence and punishment and pain.

Both of these authors are working with traditions that fantasy enthusiasts are familiar with. Their heroes are sometimes dirty and sometimes make foolish decisions, but all the more loved because of these choices. There is indeed value to grit.
posted by Fizz at 1:07 PM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting these links, I thought they were all interesting. It is perhaps unsurprising that I find Abercrombie's the most convincing.
posted by Justinian at 1:11 PM on February 28, 2013


It's not a bad little piece. Like a lot of criticisms about fantasy these days, it seems to be stuck in the rut that fantasy is equivalent to other-world epic fantasy, when some of the best fantasy published today is equally at home in 21st century London or Johannesburg, post-apocalyptic Galveston, rural NY and NYC, or a magical space that's hard to pin down to a century or decade.

One of the comments gets it completely wrong in suggesting that "grit" is a relatively recent invention, while I'll point to the bleak moments of terror and lurid pulpiness of writers like Lovecraft, Leiber, and Burroughs (who would inspire Moorcock's tragic fantasy). In fact, I'd argue that some works by King, Straub, and Barker fit well within the big tent of fantasy.

At least for me, I think he's overextending his argument when it comes to depth of character, honesty, moral ambiguity, and modernity. But then again, he's largely preaching to the converted. I like good "grimdark." I also like good books that hit all of the above and might get called "shiny shiny." I'm finally getting into Mieville and find him an author who can do either.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:11 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've just finished re-reading Abercrombie, he is impressively extra cynical in a way I think really appeals to modern readers. If he had written LOTR, It would have turned out that Gandalf was really Sauron, Aragorn was just a dude who found a broken sword at a flea market, and Frodo and Sam were lovers, but both were cheating on each other with Gollum, and also secretly brothers. Even people who do good stuff in his books only do so accidentally. There are some pretty clever subversions of fantasy tropes.

We just don't like heros anymore. We like them on old books, they are kind of a quaint notion from a simpler time. Nowadays we think we know better.

I'm also almost finished with the Black Company books. Not only do they not disappoint in the every person is truly terrible, except those too simple to be evil, arena, they are also fun because you get to read fantasy people saying "yo" all the time.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:12 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Joe Abercrombie does not deviate too far from the traditional path.

Apart from all his characters showing wear and tear or being outright bastards (metaphorically), at least in the First Law trilogy. For instance, whatsisname may appear Gandalfesque, but turns out to be pretty much "do not meddle in the affairs of wizards".

As for Rothfuss, there is some stupidity there too. Let's keep prodding the heir of one of the most powerful families in the land! Let's have random circumstance keep the protagonist poor because it's an easy way of creating conflict! Let's [SPOILER]go to another land with all the taxes recovered instead of returning them asap[/SPOILER].
posted by ersatz at 1:21 PM on February 28, 2013


In the sense that fantasy is an attempt at a modern form of ancient myth, you could argue that grit has always been there in a way. I mean if the Theban plays aren't considered grimdark, I don't know what is.
posted by Erberus at 1:44 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


For Rothfuss, I don't think it is stupidity on the part of the author. Rather, it is a tragic character flaw in the protagonist, that he absolutely has to have the last word and follow his own path no matter what the consequences. I actually really like that in fantasy books, when they examine exactly what sort of mental derangement would lead to typically "heroic" actions.
posted by Balna Watya at 2:15 PM on February 28, 2013


I can only ever read the word "grimdark" as "gridmark". First I did it on accident, now I just prefer it.
Just had to get that off my chest.
posted by bleep at 2:17 PM on February 28, 2013


I just finished Joe Abercrombie's Red Country, which is rough homage to American westerns and marks the return of a couple of his most celebrated anti-heroes. There's all kinds of nastiness in this world but he does offer some redemption at the end of this one, certainly more than Best Served Cold did.

I'd rather have grit than not. I think Glen Cook really started this trend with the Black Company but of course it was GRRM that upped the ante. But the medieval Europe was a nasty brutish place and as much as I love Aragorn and Faramir, it's always just as entertaining and gripping to sit down with Tyrion and Logen Ninefingers.
posted by Ber at 2:23 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I want more True Grit in fantasy,
But seriously none of this sounds very 'fantastic'. I haven't even seen or read Game of Thrones but reading these reviews it seems like modern fantasy is about the blood and gore and war, not the strange and sublime? Moorcock could mix the two, with conflicted antiheros in gorgeous settings.

I suppose it makes sense when even LOTR is directed by a splatter horror director who does not spare the dirt.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:27 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


But seriously none of this sounds very 'fantastic'. I haven't even seen or read Game of Thrones but reading these reviews it seems like modern fantasy is about the blood and gore and war, not the strange and sublime? Moorcock could mix the two, with conflicted antiheros in gorgeous settings.

The reviews have a fairly strong bias in what they're calling "fantasy."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:30 PM on February 28, 2013


But the medieval Europe was a nasty brutish place and as much as I love Aragorn and Faramir, it's always just as entertaining and gripping to sit down with Tyrion and Logen Ninefingers.

So, what is the fixation on fantasy being "realistic" in regards to medieval Europe? I guess I don't get why that's necessary.
posted by selfnoise at 3:10 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


selfnoise, I guess we think it's necessary because fantasy was for too long stuck with noble, high-born quests for farm boys who never swore, had sex, or shat. Other genres of literature had long moved past squeaky clean (mystery, science fiction, romance, westerns). For those of us that had been reading the genre for a long time, it was getting a little old to see yet another farm boy told by the kindly wizard that he was the chosen one.

There's still plenty of non-dark fantasy out there. You can read Robert Jordan until the cows come home, or his successor Brandon Sanderson, and dozens of others. But grimdark was a pendulum swing that was building for a very long time.

I am writing a blog post about all of this and it occurs to me now, that while Glen Cook wrote the first fantasy from the trenches and on the side of the dark forces, Stephen Donaldson still was the first to go dark. I thought Thomas Covenant was a whiny bastard and even though most of those books were squeaky clean, there was still that whole nasty raping of Lena. I'd track the movement back to there.
posted by Ber at 3:52 PM on February 28, 2013


Sorry, I worded that badly. I didn't mean "Why is it important that fantasy be a realistic depiction of medieval Europe vs a idealized depiction of medieval Europe" and more "Why is it important that fantasy be a depiction of medieval Europe" full stop. I find the closer it gets to "historical fiction with ehh... some magic I guess" the more I just want to read historical fiction, and to me fantasy is about magic, mystery and style, not vaguely different historical worlds.

Also, the "realism" emphasis tends to be mostly aimed towards the ultra-violence and oppression, rather than, say, the interesting cultural and economic dynamics of the Middle Ages that don't have to do with decapitations. That makes it feel a bit like a fetish to me.

As an example, I began to read R. Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" series but put it down after it became clear that it was just the Crusades with a different map, an uberman protagonist (actually, I liked that part, it was interesting) and a reductive focus on blood, sexual violence, and other nastiness. While the Crusades were incredibly, almost unbelievably violent, there was also a lot more going on, which is why a military history that focused on the battles and court intrigues would miss a lot of the most interesting things that happened.
posted by selfnoise at 4:08 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am writing a blog post about all of this

I'd like to read it when it's done. It takes less time than reading 3x800 pages.
posted by ersatz at 4:17 PM on February 28, 2013


selfnoise, I guess we think it's necessary because fantasy was for too long stuck with noble, high-born quests for farm boys who never swore, had sex, or shat.

Yeah, it was a necessary reaction to Tolkien's bullshit worldview of everything being a fall from a previous greater state of being, with noble ubermensch benevolently ruling over the lesser classes.
posted by Justinian at 4:20 PM on February 28, 2013


Ber: selfnoise, I guess we think it's necessary because fantasy was for too long stuck with noble, high-born quests for farm boys who never swore, had sex, or shat.

I'm not certain when that might be. Noble "farm boys" certainly doesn't describe John Carter (1912 if we include science fantasy), Conan (1932), Steerpike (1946), The Grey Mouser (1947), Elric (1961), Moly Grue (1968), Corwin (1970), Thomas Covenant (1977), or Roland (1978). The genre has been drenched in blood and at least implied sex from the start.

selfnoise: "Why is it important that fantasy be a depiction of medieval Europe" full stop.

It's not. And here's something a lot of critics of fantasy don't understand. Middle Earth wasn't a depiction of medieval Europe. It was a depiction of, in Tolkien's words, "fall, mortality, and machine" done using many of the stylistic ideas of medieval literature, most of which didn't give a damn about historical accuracy either. "Medieval" fantasy has about the same relationship to Europe as Oz does to 19th century America. It's a liberally abused source of inspiration, and that's about it. That said, many people writing in the English language tend to tap European history, literature, and folklore on the basis of familiarity.

But European, second-world, epic fantasy probably isn't a majority of the genre these days, and it's not a majority of what gets shortlisted for the awards either.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:35 PM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


One thing that damages my suspension of disbelief in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is that I don't recall any characters, not one, becoming pants shittingly terrified over the possibility that all of the horrific things happening around them (or that they were perhaps inflicting on others) would eventually happen to themselves. Really, every single character is so full of hubris, stupidity, or madness that they never start wondering if not living by the sword might be a path to avoid dying by the sword? Or that the characters who aren't full of hubris, stupidity or madness are all so mentally balanced that not one of them lays awake nightly, too anxious to sleep, worried that someone from the Dreadfort will peel them like an apple, or burn them alive, or [insert nightmarish fate here]?

I could believe a bit more strongly in the world if there at least one over-sensitive soul who was absolutely traumatized by the grimdark surrounding them. You know, for contrast. I know growing up in the milieu would moderate that, but no one had an existential crisis about the choices their culture was making.

I am on the extreme end of empathy, though. I've wept at the site cute woodland creatures turned into roadkill---and that's in adulthood, mind you. During childhood, the fact that bad things could happen to good people (or worse, cute fuzzy animals) was a concept that was completely traumatizing and paralyzing on more than one occasion.

Maybe it's different when criminals are executed and tortured in the castle you're growing up in. I'm sure that would lead you to grow up with a thicker skin than I did in my white-bread suburban upbringing, but still.

Even so, returning again to "live by the sword, die by the sword." Maybe I'm ignorant of history, but does the overwhelming majority of humanity throughout the ages so thoroughly lack the instinct to try and get along with others for the sake of saving one's own skin? To the point where no one wonders aloud about why there's pain in the world, and the world is so broken? Am I so radically underestimating the grip of honor cultures' grip over people's ideology that I'm weird for wondering where were the voices of reason? I forget which of the links mentions the Red Wedding, but did none of the Freys realize that it would make it difficult for them in the future to create marriage alliances? If not one-foot-in-the-grave grandpa frey, then one of the successors?

There is Brianne. I'll have to read her closely on my next re-read to see if her ideas of justice actually come from a chivalric code or whether they're personal morality. I can't recall from memory whether she's following a code that everyone knows and just laughs at, or if her concept of justice (killing the Starks who raped and hung the prostitutes who had been used by the Lannisters) is instinctive. Could be either blind faith or moral instinct; I doubt she has hidden philosophical depths that these ideals are coming from. Jaime's development is interesting, too, but we've not seen the end of his arc.
posted by wires at 4:44 PM on February 28, 2013


but does the overwhelming majority of humanity throughout the ages so thoroughly lack the instinct to try and get along with others for the sake of saving one's own skin?

I can't speak to what the overwhelming majority of humanity felt or didn't feel. I can say that the world, pre the last few hundred years, was by comparison a horrifically violent and cruel place on a day to day basis. You couldn't travel from one village to the next without putting your life in real mortal jeopardy on the road. And god forbid you displease your ruler in some arbitrary fashion.

I forget which of the links mentions the Red Wedding, but did none of the Freys realize that it would make it difficult for them in the future to create marriage alliances?

First, it was Robb, not the Freys, who broke their word. Second, the Red Wedding has a very real historical precedent, the "Black Dinner" of Scotland in 1440. So it is very much a realistic thing.
posted by Justinian at 4:57 PM on February 28, 2013


I could believe a bit more strongly in the world if there at least one over-sensitive soul who was absolutely traumatized by the grimdark surrounding them.

The oversensitive souls didn't last long enough to have angsty scenes in the book. And while you acknowledge that growing up in that environment would "moderate" that sensitivity, I think you severely underestimate it.

Seriously, everyone should read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which is a popular history of the latter half of the 14th century (or, as she calls it, "the worst time in the history of the world to be alive if you were in Europe"). It's not just that bands of knights actually did ride through peasant villages, stealing everything that wasn't nailed down, raping the women, and murdering the rest; it's that the peasants expected no better. Tuchman does a good job describing the fatalistic worldview of everyone that was informed by religion. Also at the time, the Black Plague swept through Europe four times. There weren't any sensitive souls around.

does the overwhelming majority of humanity throughout the ages so thoroughly lack the instinct to try and get along with others for the sake of saving one's own skin?

Pretty much. As Stephen Pinker goes into in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we're living in an unprecedentedly non-violent time, even considering WW1 and 2 and the variety of democidal policies that racked up body counts in the millions in the 20th century.

Perhaps a more instructive thing to look at is the Milgram Experiments, where 2/3rds of the people involved administered 3 full-strength, potentially fatal electric shocks to others, because the doctor in the study told them to.
posted by fatbird at 6:04 PM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Seriously, everyone should read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror

I once had a chat with Sean McMullen about how much of that book he couldn't use as the basis for any kind of fiction, because people would never believe it, or would complain he was being unrealistically grim, in spite of it actually happening.
posted by Amanojaku at 6:47 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't speak to what the overwhelming majority of humanity felt or didn't feel. I can say that the world, pre the last few hundred years, was by comparison a horrifically violent and cruel place on a day to day basis. You couldn't travel from one village to the next without putting your life in real mortal jeopardy on the road. And god forbid you displease your ruler in some arbitrary fashion.

What about during Roman times? The whole medieval setting fits so well into the 'collapse of a great empire' narrative because they were living in the post-apocalyptic ruins of an empire that did bring peace and stability. The Romans even treated their slaves better than lords treated their peasants. I was watching The Seven Ages of Britain last night and even when the host was glorifying that time period it just seemed so ugly and brutal. I'm not sure why we write fantasy about it.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:51 PM on February 28, 2013


Maybe we write about it because it simultaneously feels so close and yet so alien.
posted by protocoach at 7:59 PM on February 28, 2013


Also at the time, the Black Plague swept through Europe four times. There weren't any sensitive souls around.

Historical note. The Black Death happened right smack in the middle of the Hundred Years War (which actually lasted for about 130 years). It led to cessation of most hostilities ... for about two years. And then they were all right back at it -- they being the English for the most part, who wouldn't stop raiding, plundering, raping, pillaging their way through France ...

And then there's the delightful story of the Siege of Rouen ...

Due to a lack of manpower on the English side, a "breach and storm" of the city could not be managed so the town was completely surrounded, with the English intending to starve out the defenders. By December, the people of Rouen were eating cats, dogs, horseflesh, and even mice. The streets were filled with starving citizens. The town expelled more than 12,000 of the poor to save food. King Henry V would not allow the people to leave the siege line, and so the starving, expelled people of Rouen were forced to live in the ditch dug near the wall of Rouen for Rouen's protection. Even the English felt sorry for the starving people. On Christmas Day 1418, King Henry allowed two priests to give food to the starving people, but the day soon ended and the people went back to dying miserably in the ditch.

ah, the good ole days.
posted by philip-random at 8:18 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, what is the fixation on fantasy being "realistic" in regards to medieval Europe? I guess I don't get why that's necessary.

You can get away with prolix descriptions of sexual assault of women and girls but retain a fig leaf (ha!) of respectability.
posted by winna at 9:51 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


It really isn't new. Grit's always been there in the undergenre of pulp fantasy, although changing mores have altered how it is presented (more openly, mostly, with less euphemism, and with a few elements - like the spectacular crazyfuck racism of early 20th century pulp - filtered out). And there's a reason why people got tired of that and swung back towards epic/romantic for a while, and why people are swinging back again. I think Abercrombie hits the nail on the head when he notes that these are tools in a toolbox.

I don't like the evangelists. I don't like the authors who kind of leer at you through the fog of blood, gore and sleaze, or go on and on about how they're saving the genre from the choking grasp of Tolkien's dead hand and educating all the uptight little geeks about how reality really works - Erickson, Moorcock and Mieville, in particular (although Mieville seems to have moved on a bit) have always been hard to read in interviews and essays (as opposed to their fiction) because of the weird mixture of condescension and crusading spirit they bring to the table.

Tuchman's book is great, but there is something rather weird in the way the argument seems to run: this time in history was incredibly shitty, therefore it should and must be the baseline for "realism." Apparently the equally real existences of millions of people who inhabited, say, the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt or Mesoamerica, dynastic China, etc. aren't really realistic. Or perhaps the argument is (on a more defensive note) that because there was a period in which things were that shitty, that grants us permission to use it as a baseline. Well, for sure, but it's hardly mandatory. Which leaves the question of why it is so prominent.

People have a taste for grit in fantasy at the moment. Some people try to make that taste (much as a different brand of enthusiast does with a taste in music, or art, or cuisine) a test of the moral/intellectual "depth" or sophistication of their fellow readers. Others try to rationalize it in various ways. None of that's new, nor is it a sign of the decline of civilization or the death of the genre, as that first dude's post would have it - was it just me, or is it impossible to read that post without picturing the fellow writing it wearing a monocle?

You can get away with prolix descriptions of sexual assault of women and girls but retain a fig leaf (ha!) of respectability.

Rape is the new "villain killed my parents." Cheap and easy way to establish emotional tension, show off how hard and willing to deal with "mature themes" the author is, and delineate the the gritty tone of the setting all at once. Of course, we got so used to parents dying that the grit value wore off, it's rather disturbing to imagine the same thing happening with rape.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:07 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Apparently the equally real existences of millions of people who inhabited, say, the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt or Mesoamerica, dynastic China

Life was pretty shitty for quite a lot of those people, too. Christ, the Aztecs cut out the still beating hearts of tens to hundreds of thousands of their own people every single year. They once butchered thousands or possibly tens of thousands of people in one day to consecrate the Great Pyramid in Tenochtitlan. Life under the Pharaohs was no better. More than half the population were serfs and slaves! And China? The An Lushan rebellion was one of the two most deadly events in human history for the common people. A not insignificant fraction of the entire human population of the planet was killed. Far more, relative to the total world population, than the world wars. The only rival would be the Mongol conquests... which also affected much of the area.

I'm not completely up on the daily life of the average Roman dirt farmer but I'm not exactly signing up for a ticket in the time machine given everything I do know.

The reason we're more familiar with the brutality of Europe in the middle ages and the like is because it's either more recent or is much better documented or both. That doesn't mean it was necessarily singularly unpleasant. Life was utter shit for almost everyone for almost all of human history. Sadly. Including people in Egypt, Mesoamerica, China, and (probably) Rome. I could be wrong about Rome, I suppose, but I ain't holding my breath.
posted by Justinian at 10:59 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really, every single character is so full of hubris, stupidity, or madness that they never start wondering if not living by the sword might be a path to avoid dying by the sword?

Whenever you play the game of thrones, you either win or die. You have to take sides because not recognising your king and supporting him materially when he commands it is treasonous. For instance, the Vale's 'neutrality' is accepted but IIRC the Lannisters aren't too happy about it and plan repercussions at some point.

"There is great disorder under heaven...the situation is excellent." These upheavals don't happen that often. It's a very rare chance for a non-ruling family to seize power and the Lannisters who are about to accede end up making some terrible choices (Jaime & Cersei having treasonous sex in Winterfell or giving Joffrey executive -heh- power) that resulted in five kings.
posted by ersatz at 5:43 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


selfnoise, I guess we think it's necessary because fantasy was for too long stuck with noble, high-born quests for farm boys who never swore, had sex, or shat.

I'm not certain when that might be. Noble "farm boys" certainly doesn't describe John Carter (1912 if we include science fantasy), Conan (1932), Steerpike (1946), The Grey Mouser (1947), Elric (1961), Moly Grue (1968), Corwin (1970), Thomas Covenant (1977), or Roland (1978). The genre has been drenched in blood and at least implied sex from the start.


Averaging one example from each decade -- and not coming up with one that began within the lifetime of much of fantasy's current fanbase -- is hardly "drenched."
posted by Etrigan at 6:30 AM on March 1, 2013


It's true that life in the past, even at the height of, say, the Pax Romana, was far more dangerous than life now. But was dangerous in a multitude of different ways, with different levels of society experiencing it in different ways. There are some authors working outside the mode of "and then the knight comes in, rapes everybody, kills the peasants in the fields, and rides off on his warhorse," but because Game of Thrones is so big right now, those other authors are sort of cast into shadow. I mean, Aliette de Bodard is doing great Aztec fantasy-mysteries right now, Guy Gavriel Kay has gone through a multitude of alt-countries and is about to release his second book set in an alt-China, we've got everything from the Napoleonic war with dragons to richly described other worlds that aren't just the 13th century with added wizards.

The whole "but that's just the way it WAS then, you have to just be ok with the rampant slaughter and the constant rape" stuff bugs me. And heck, I liked GoT - at least the first few books, after which I lost some interest. But the author is choosing settings and building civilizations in a certain way, and is not bound by some sort of fantasy writer's law to slavishly depict all the worst moments of specific points of human history.
posted by PussKillian at 8:01 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


The whole "but that's just the way it WAS then, you have to just be ok with the rampant slaughter and the constant rape" stuff bugs me. And heck, I liked GoT - at least the first few books, after which I lost some interest. But the author is choosing settings and building civilizations in a certain way, and is not bound by some sort of fantasy writer's law to slavishly depict all the worst moments of specific points of human history.

See also Scott Lynch (can't link to his LiveJournal from work, sorry), who replied to a fan who was all up in arms that he had a female pirate captain in his one of his Gentleman Bastard books (medieval-esque period), by basically saying, "Yeah, not realistic. But neither is the rest of my escapist nonsense, and if I want a chick to be an awesome swashbuckling pirate captain, then I get to do that. Fuck off."
posted by Etrigan at 8:12 AM on March 1, 2013


Yes, exactly. He said something along the lines of, "well you know what, everybody can have an escapist fantasy, and so here's a badass middle-aged single mom who will take your cargo and fucking burn your ship to the waterline if she chooses."
posted by PussKillian at 8:52 AM on March 1, 2013


But the author is choosing settings and building civilizations in a certain way, and is not bound by some sort of fantasy writer's law to slavishly depict all the worst moments of specific points of human history.

No, but where you find all the worst moments of specific points of human history, you find stories that easily engage readers, ultimately TV audiences. Lines of conflict are drawn in much more extreme ways, the stakes are always high. I mean, there's a reason that nobody's using a stylized version of mid-1960s suburban Toronto as the backdrop for their best selling series of fantasy novels -- nothing was happening.
posted by philip-random at 9:35 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, but where you find all the worst moments of specific points of human history, you find stories that easily engage readers, ultimately TV audiences.

That's fine, but the writer has to admit that he (or she (ha ha)) is doing that as a shortcut, rather than just saying, "Nope, that's how things always have to be in a pre-industrial society, sorry, I would absolutely make it different in my totally fucking made-up world if I could."
posted by Etrigan at 9:48 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's pretty much it exactly.

It is fascinating, but really completely unimportant, that most of history has been unpleasant and violent by some measure. This is because fantasy has no obligation to ape history, and in fact usually does so as a crutch.
posted by selfnoise at 10:05 AM on March 1, 2013


What writer has ever said "this is the one true fantasy world, and all others are bunk?"

We're confusing the success of grimdark with a narrative prescription. Martin's not telling anyone they need to write in the grimdark world, just like Tolkien never decreed that fantasy worlds require beautiful elves who are deadly archers.

The fact that the B tier of authors chase success by imitating it shouldn't be viewed as a mark against the successful.
posted by fatbird at 10:05 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Etrigan: Averaging one example from each decade...

I was just highlighting many of the best and most influential works. The list was meant to be representative, not exhaustive. The pulps during their peak of publication were notoriously violent and sexual to the point of inspiring calls for regulatory censorship. Tolkien and Lewis were, in fact, reactionaries WRT English-language fantasy.

After Tolkien, Moorcock was part of a whole "new wave" of SF&F that challenged and critiqued a great deal of work inspired by Tolkien. That was shortly followed by a whole movement of urban, mythic, and revisionist works in the 80s and 90s.

I stopped listing books published after '78 mostly because I was lazy, made my point, and that was about the time that monsters and vampires became something of a fad. Switching to titles rather than characters and going off of the World Fantasy Awards list: Watchtower (1979) Book of the New Sun (1980), Little, Big (1981), The Dragon Waiting (1984), The Talisman (1985), Weaveworld (1987), Bone Dance (1992), Iron Dragon's Daughter (1994), Galveston (2001), and here, I go lazy again because we're overlapping with Game of Thrones (1996), King Rat (2002), and Abercrombe's work.

If we include comics there, was that whole British invasion that started rolling in the mid 80s with spin-offs to literary fantasy throughout the 90s. But of course, Les Humanoides Associes got there first in the 70s, and they were published in English starting in '77 as Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal was a reliable source of the dark, gothic, and/or sexy as I grew up.

In film, Conan came out in 1982 with decapitation, sex, and camel-punching. Time Bandits was '81, along with Excalibur. Indiana Jones wasn't terribly shy about blood and splatter. While Legend ostensibly followed the wildboy-does-good template, it went overboard on the sexual symbolism and subtext. In gaming, Demonweb Pits was published in '80, Warhammer Fantasy (which arguably coined the term "grimdark") in '83, Ravenloft in '90, Baldur's Gate '98, McGee's Alice 2000, and Morrowind 2002.

Probably should give a menton to Piers Anthony who had an entire string of best-sellers with "meet the monster and have sex with her" as a sub plot. That was a good chunk of my embarrassing adolescence. I also disagree that the claimed "shiny shiny" is really all that shiny once you look at what's really going on in the narrative. Ahlquist points out that there's something really weird about a kindly tin man who decapitates dozens of wolves and is the victim of multiple self-amputation.

philip-random: No, but where you find all the worst moments of specific points of human history, you find stories that easily engage readers, ultimately TV audiences. Lines of conflict are drawn in much more extreme ways, the stakes are always high. I mean, there's a reason that nobody's using a stylized version of mid-1960s suburban Toronto as the backdrop for their best selling series of fantasy novels -- nothing was happening.

Contemporary fantasy has been outselling other-world "historical" fantasy for a good chunk of the last few decades. Certainly I don't see King or Gaiman hurting right now in terms of sales.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:11 AM on March 1, 2013


What writer has ever said "this is the one true fantasy world, and all others are bunk?"

No one is saying that, but authors often say (or at least heavily imply) that it's "more realistic" that their worlds of magic and elves and unknown lands and peoples and languages -- which all came out of their own head -- are brutally violent and casually rapetastic and suchlike.
posted by Etrigan at 10:13 AM on March 1, 2013


Who says that nothing is happening in suburban Toronto in the mid-1960s? Tons of urban fantasy writers have made excellent stories of magical, wonderous things happening just under the surface of what seems to be an ordinary life. Dogland(yes, I know, Shetterly, but I adore that book) is set in a kitchy Florida roadside attraction. Charles de Lint's Newford setting is, I believe, a fictionalized Canadian city.

What writer has ever said "this is the one true fantasy world, and all others are bunk?"

I don't think the writers themselves tend to say it. I do know the whole "but this is the way it WAS" argument gets trotted out these days when people object to things like rape in GoT. It goes: proper fantasy has castles, castles mean medieval European history, things were overwhelmingly violent and women were raped all the time in medieval Europe, therefore shut up about all the rape in my fantasy book.
posted by PussKillian at 10:16 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


It IS more realistic. Take Tolkien's world, and compare it to Tolkien's world with a whole lot of brutality drawn straight from our own history, and the latter is justly considered "more realistic" than without those things. The inclusion of elves and magic doesn't make other, more realistic touches into something fantastical or gratuitous.

I understand and appreciate the backlash against grimdark, but that's a backlash against the bandwagon jumping that accompanies any successful fad.
posted by fatbird at 10:17 AM on March 1, 2013


CBrachyrhynchos, I don't disagree that fantasy has often been less shiny-shiny than people tend to remember, but I also think there's a distinct difference between "Conan kills a bunch of nameless minions and then a big spider demon" and "Spend three books making us love a character, then kill him."

"Grimdark" is more than just blood and spatter.
posted by Etrigan at 10:20 AM on March 1, 2013


It IS more realistic.

And it IS a crappy way of justifying your narrative choices. That's the thing that we're saying here -- if these authors just fucking own their choices and say, "Yeah, there's a lot of violence. I thought it was a good way to heighten tension and emphasize how important this struggle is to the characters," then fine. But they should quit with the "Gosh, I wish I didn't have to portray this vicious rape scene, but that's how things are in this world that I totally made up in my own brain from start to finish."
posted by Etrigan at 10:24 AM on March 1, 2013


therefore shut up about all the rape in my fantasy book

But Martin has a good case for saying exactly that, especially in contrast to Tolkienism and as a critique of Tolkienism.

I want to be careful, though, to distinguish between what Martin does, which is injecting realism as a critique, from what another author (like Donaldson) does, which is use "injecting realism" as an excuse for gratuitous brutality. The difference is pointed out in Simon's article when he describes how the "exotic" dancer sexually abuses herself on stage--this serves no narrative purpose, it just shocks the reader for no good purpose.
posted by fatbird at 10:24 AM on March 1, 2013


if these authors just fucking own their choices and say

You're connecting 'owning your choices' to an admission that the choices are gratuitous, when they're demonstrably not in the case of Martin, who includes a lot of violence and rape, but doesn't dwell on its depiction for its own sake. You're essentially saying that no one can simply choose relatively high realism as a baseline.

that's how things are in this world that I totally made up in my own brain from start to finish

Are there any authors actually doing this? Disowning their choices like this?
posted by fatbird at 10:30 AM on March 1, 2013


You're connecting 'owning your choices' to an admission that the choices are gratuitous, when they're demonstrably not in the case of Martin, who includes a lot of violence and rape, but doesn't dwell on its depiction for its own sake.

I laid out in that very sentence a plausible reason for those choices. And yet, Martin (and others) stick to things like:

relatively high realism as a baseline.

to which I will respond again that if you choose your "baseline" and then add magic and make up countries and political factions and races and everything else that goes into worldbuilding, it's a little disingenuous to suddenly draw your Line of Realism at the things that you just enjoy writing about.

that's how things are in this world that I totally made up in my own brain from start to finish

Are there any authors actually doing this? Disowning their choices like this?


Yes. That is totally a direct quote from Strawman Q. Fantasyauthor, who wrote such books as Rape in the Time of Dragons and Totally Realistic Violence With Talking Swords.
posted by Etrigan at 10:42 AM on March 1, 2013


Etrigan: Now, you're just moving the goalposts around. I responded specifically to: "was for too long stuck with noble, high-born quests for farm boys who never swore, had sex, or shat." Now we're to books that develop characters and kill them. That's something that comes to fantasy directly from Gigamesh, Beowulf, Le Morte d'Arthur, and the Grimm collections. Tolkien was a frequent abuser, although he struggled a bit developing Thorin, Boromir, Theoden, and Denethor.

My point is that if you wanted fantasy works with antiheroes, villains, blood, and/or sex, they were rarely very hard to find.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:53 AM on March 1, 2013


You make my point for me. Coming up with one weak reason and saying "why don't they just fucking admit it?" discounts other valid reasons that you dismiss because they result in an annoying fad, when you're discussing this at the level of authorial intent. That's the problem: You're taking a justifiable annoyance at the pervasiveness of the current bandwagon and telling authors what they're thinking (or are allowed to think).

It's a very justifiable choice to say "let's see how the normal fantasy tropes fare in a more realistic world". In Martin's case, that world includes the sort brutality and sexual violence that has, in the past, been very common. For him to make that choice, and then surgically remove rape from it because it's his fucking world and he'll do what he wants, tears directly at the fabric of realism to which he is subjecting dragons and magic and noble quests to achieve the throne.
posted by fatbird at 10:57 AM on March 1, 2013


Etrigan: Now, you're just moving the goalposts around. I responded specifically to: "was for too long stuck with noble, high-born quests for farm boys who never swore, had sex, or shat."

Yes, but you said, "The genre has been drenched in blood and at least implied sex from the start." Which I took to mean that you believe that the current grimdark stuff isn't really that far from the median line of fantasy throughout the ages. I think you can certainly find spikes into nearly-grimdarky territory, but I think that median line has been dragged darkward in recent time.

I don't think we're as far apart as we think we are.
posted by Etrigan at 10:58 AM on March 1, 2013


I mean, there's a reason that nobody's using a stylized version of mid-1960s suburban Toronto as the backdrop for their best selling series of fantasy novels -- nothing was happening.
posted by philip-random at 5:35 PM on March 1 [1 favorite +] [!]


Now I kind of want to watch a mumblecore movie with elves.
posted by Erberus at 10:59 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Warhammer Fantasy (which arguably coined the term "grimdark") in '83

Isn't it more of a 40K thing?

Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
posted by ersatz at 12:09 PM on March 1, 2013


I mean, there's a reason that nobody's using a stylized version of mid-1960s suburban Toronto as the backdrop for their best selling series of fantasy novels

Charles de Lint came pretty close. Except 1980s.
posted by Justinian at 12:37 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Etrigan: I don't know what "median" might mean in this context. But I think that grimdark is an evolutionary branch rather than a revolution for epic (Abercrombe's term) or secondary-world fantasy.

My well-ground axe in these discussions is that fantasy is a diverse genere, and writers and fans are forced to specialize in order to make sense of the huge volume of work that gets published these days. The answer to, "I don't want to read grimdark, urban, epic, paranormal, male protagonists, female protagonists, religious works, non-religious works, romance, etc., etc." is "Why don't you read this instead?"
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:53 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Etrigan: I don't know what "median" might mean in this context.

If you stack up all the fantasy books sold in a period of time, arranged from "shiny shiny" to "grimdark," the one in the middle is the "median book" on that scale. I would argue that this theoretical median book from the period of time we're in at the moment is much grimdarker now than the theoretical median book from any other period of time in the era of mass publishing.

But I think that grimdark is an evolutionary branch rather than a revolution for epic (Abercrombe's term) or secondary-world fantasy.

Agreed.

My well-ground axe in these discussions is that fantasy is a diverse genere, and writers and fans are forced to specialize in order to make sense of the huge volume of work that gets published these days. The answer to, "I don't want to read grimdark, urban, epic, paranormal, male protagonists, female protagonists, religious works, non-religious works, romance, etc., etc." is "Why don't you read this instead?"

Also agreed, with the caveat that whatever the "current trend" is (in any time or context) tends to push other stuff to the margins. As I noted above, Laurell K. Hamilton didn't kill fantasy, but holy hopping Christ did she make it difficult to find new stuff that wasn't romance-novels-but-with-sexy-vampires-instead-of-sexy-pirates for a while there.
posted by Etrigan at 1:19 PM on March 1, 2013


Martin's not telling anyone they need to write in the grimdark world, just like Tolkien never decreed that fantasy worlds require beautiful elves who are deadly archers.

And yet Tolkien is very often explicitly blamed for what his critics view as a stifling overemphasis in the genre on beautiful elves, deadly archers, noble men and fainting women, etc. etc. So I'm not so sure decrees is the issue here - it's rather the idea that success has powerful effects in terms of imitators, book sales figures (and thus editorial interest/remuneration, etc.) and other vital indicators of whether or not a given kind of fantasy will be published or not.

That's not really a hard point to get, is it? I mean, I can remember it being brought up in threads on Pixar films (about the relative absence of strong female protagonists) and in music threads (regarding how popular but, in Mefi's view, mediocre pop artists make it more difficult for competent independents to be successful in the field).

Tolkien has been regarded by a whole generation of fantasy readers - and fantasy writers - as something of a dark lord himself, holding sway atop his towering pile of royalties over a blasted wasteland of medieval romance tropes, served by two generations of mindless, imitative literary minions. I don't see him that way, there have been vast fields of the genre since the dawn of fantasy untouched by Tolkien's legacy, for better or for worse. But by the same token, I don't see a problem with people critiquing where Tolkien and the tradition he started have blind spots, or get incongruously righteous, or get up to total nonsense. Likewise, it's fine to point out that the grimdark boys (and they are, overwhelmingly, male) have some serious blind spots, and that when you point them out, many of the fanboys rush out desperately to defend against criticism with the cry that they're just being realistic, (which is bullshit) and that realism defined as such is a mandatory element in any worthy adult fantasy fiction (which is also bullshit).

And just because a friend threw the argument at me last night when I was talking about precisely this subject, and I thought it was wrong but also interesting:

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is an entirely realistic work.

What are the general points on which Tolkien is called out on as unrealistic? Mostly the interactions of the characters (very noble or very ignoble, tracing very closely to their affiliations for or against the Dark Lord) and the way the story turns out in the end - i.e. a mostly happy, if mixed somewhat with all good things must pass away romantic tragedy. My friend pointed out that these are both ridiculously unrealistic - unless you accept the core premise of the setting.

The metaphysics of the setting is Christian. Catholic, really, with a heavy dose of Christianized paganism of the sort that Tolkien, Lewis and many of their friends adored and rather wished was still available to them as a viable option. It's a worldview that even they could agree didn't hold any literal truth in their own world, but Tolkien was explicitly writing a world in which those metaphysics - and, especially, the posited connection within that worldview between spiritual affiliation and moral probity, physical power, and, to a degree, earthly success - was as real as the laws of gravity and evolution. If you take seriously the way Tolkien explicitly - and without offering any significant space for doubt that the Valar and the Maiar and the rest of them really do exist - constructed that backdrop, the actions of the characters are, in fact, quite realistic outgrowths of the way their world is. They're not, even the humans, really human beings, in the sense that we are humans in our own world, overevolved apes with a lot of bad holdovers.

The point she was trying to make was that when we go after Tolkien for being unrealist we're either not really thinking through what realism means or, (as she considered most people to do) papering over discomfort on another level with talk about realism. Basically, the problem is not that Tolkien is unrealistic, but that he makes entirely real and consistent a worldview which we find fundamentally abhorrent. It's a world in which the very structure of reality, and the higher intelligences who rule it, approve of and indeed mandate a world in which hierarchies of race, class and (to a considerable degree, Eowyn and Galadriel notwithstanding) gender are set in stone, sacred and not to be broken. Once, the attractive aspects of that world - victory over evil guaranteed, the beauty of the unspoiled settings, the tragic grandeur of it all - was enough to outweigh that, but times have changed. But because we've come to a point in our culture when we are more comfortable critiquing things we don't like as technically flawed rather than explicitly ideologically repulsive (in the older sense of pushing away rather than simply disgusting).

The reply I immediately gave was that she was basically re-defining realism to mean internal consistency, to which she basically said, "I'm not re-defining anything. I'm just defining. You're the one who hasn't really thought through a definition." And I think that that's what a lot of the "realism" folks haven't done - if "realism" is not internal consistency, than what is? Well, the natural answer is "close to reality" - i.e. the world we actually live in (grant for a moment the premise that we basically understand that world, enough to import elements of it into fantasy, anyway). But at that point the problem with "realism requires rape/violence/etc." begins to seriously break down, because you have to posit that rape/violence/etc. is a free-standing element of our reality, not dependent upon any factors specific to our reality.

Let's say that rape/violence/etc. (RVE, 'cause what the hell) is rooted in our evolutionary history. Apes do it, we do it, it can be alleviated but not eradicated, etc. How, precisely, does that work out in a world where human beings were created by gods? I mean, you can make it work out if you want (gods can be assholes), but you have to choose to make your posited fantastic deities make men and women RVE, and there are suddenly a great many other options - removing RVE, on the one hand, or replacing it with a different set of human flaws (a nasty tendency to make deals with demons, for example, or to break complex ritualistic laws that affect the foundations of the somewhat rickety universe the gods have created out of chaos) which would serve similar purposes in terms of narrative tension, etc. Even if you make your gods or demons or whatever the products of human minds, given reality - well, did no goddess ever promise a tribe's women - hey, worship me and I'll take away your menfolks' distressingly brutal tendencies, or give you retractable teeth for your ladybits, or make your whole tribe switch genders on every full moon, and let's see how they like it? How does casual violence play out in a society where the divine edict thou shall not kill is actually enforced?

Okay, no gods. Nobody likes gods, they raise too many possibilities. Magic, that's safe, surely? Magic won't alter the basic nature of mankind. So you're going to build a magic system where you can see the past and the future, but no one will ever use this to track down murderers, thieves, and rapists, right? Or if it does, it won't affect social structure and the underlying violence of society at all. It's total okay for a knight to wander around raping and killing in world where anyone's relative, any bloody peasant's relative, might have a witch, warlock, elf or demon in their family tree somewhere who will take offense at it. You have to define all your magic systems, all the complex and interlocking metaphysical differences between our world and your own very, very carefully in order to maintain your "realist" RVE. It's not something that flows naturally from - "hey, our world, but with X!"

It's the literary equivalent of the foundational clause of chaos theory - the smallest alterations in the background setting will have vast ramifications, every sliver alteration that divides your fantasy world from the real world will, in point of fact, alter significantly the baseline interaction of characters in your world, including the RVE quotient. Trying to ignore this and continue talking blithely of "realism" is reminiscent of those golden age sci-fi novels (or most post-Singuarlity novels today) where everyone is in space, can fly or change their genetic code or copy themselves instantaneously - but everyone still talks and acts like 20th century dudes sitting in a Starbucks. Making a fantasy and making a "realist" novel where "realism" is explicitly defined as "like unto the world we live in" are conflicting mandates, and every move in the direction of the former makes the latter less tenable. Internal consistency is at least, well, consistent.

Does that mean that no one should write RVE-filled novels? No, but they need to fucking accept that they're not doing so out of "realism" as a pure literary idea. They are doing it because (hopefully) they want to do something specific with the story. Something about the story they want to tell requires the presence of RVE. When you pin them to the wall and make them squeal, what usually falls out is one of two things - morality or ease of access.

On the moral side, you want to illustrate that RVE is problematic. This is something Tolkien is known for not doing - and unlike my friend, I don't think it's just because his world's metaphysics makes it not so, I think that on a certain level he thought it was not so in this world as well, which is, well, something worth talking about. Illustrating RVE's problematic nature using characters in a fantasy world who your readers like or identify with is one way to make that case strongly. You're showcasing that rape isn't cool to joke about, that killing people isn't a good solution, much less The Good Solution.

Ease of access just means that people can relate to the people in your book more easily. Most fantasy readers are aware of violence, albeit not necessarily as afflicted by it as people in other times and places. A world in which rape isn't a thing that women fear, and violence is not something that the powerless fear (or at least not in the ways they do in our world), in which recourse from threats is available across the table or distributed in ways different from those of our mundane Earth - well, worth telling or no, that story is going to require a bit of extra effort to get your readers to accept it. Just like choosing to have three moons instead of one, or setting your world in Flatland.

Where I think that this comes back around to the way "grimdark" is being criticized is that a lot of "grimdark", while the authors may be using it in one of the two ways outlined above, they're also both reacting to and reinforcing a third structural reason for its use, which is aesthetic. Grimdark feels comfortable to some readers. Not just in the sense that it is relatable, easy to access - aesthetically and psychologically pleasing. Thrilling. Something like (and here we can take one of the few smart points that Mr. Monacle in the first critical blogpost bothered to make) how people relate to horror in literature and film. It's not about maturity. It's about feeling a frission, not maturity, but the sense of, wow, I'm reading this, I'm so mature. The two are not identical, and are in some ways opposites.

Martin, for what it's worth, seems to work very hard at trying to keep ahead of this sort of aesthetic. His stuff, at least in the earlier books, seemed intent on using brutality to make a point, and keeping it beyond the comfort zone not just in terms of every darker and more gruesome violence but rather by showing how it changed characters and making the reader feel the pang of options and possiblities lost. For Abercrombie (whose stuff I enjoy, he's a good writer, and his response here as well as to the earlier sexism debate seems both smart and decent), it's basically part of the background, and I think he realizes that the function of that background is aesthetic. The reader comes for the grimdark scenery and, maybe, stays for the other stuff, the stuff that makes Abercrombie's work interesting.

But again, it's a tool. It's not maturity. It's not realism in the grand sense people keep trying to give it, not in any way that can be coherently justified. It's a tool to draw the reader in or to structure what you're giving them, to get something done. And by divinizing it, which some people keep trying to do, in trying to make it just what's natural, what's mature, what is (implicit) mandatory for for anyone to be Taken Seriously In Fantasy Today, they are simultaneously drawing a ring of fortifications around a fortress which isn't holding and doing their best to avoid even acknowledging that there are equally valuable paths to be walked elsewhere. And the reason for that, fundamentally, is that they are most comfortable here, where they boast of the profoundly discomforting nature of their chosen shade of grey.

....I need to stop drinking so much coffee, this late at night.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:00 PM on March 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Well, thank you for drinking that coffee. You articulate it better than I ever could.
posted by selfnoise at 6:31 PM on March 1, 2013


Cinematically, I think it's often the case that "gritty realism" is an excuse for getting torture/rape porn on the screen. But I'm the kind of person where less is more. If you give me 5 seconds of puppy-kicking, I can imagine the worst. If you extend the demonstration of puppy-kicking much further, I'm going to become more and more conscious of how you're a manipulative hack who doesn't trust the audience.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:06 PM on March 1, 2013


It's a very justifiable choice to say "let's see how the normal fantasy tropes fare in a more realistic world". In Martin's case, that world includes the sort brutality and sexual violence that has, in the past, been very common. For him to make that choice, and then surgically remove rape from it because it's his fucking world and he'll do what he wants, tears directly at the fabric of realism to which he is subjecting dragons and magic and noble quests to achieve the throne.

How many times has the sexual assault of men or boys made it into Martin's endless doorstop series in the same kind of detail as the assault of women or girls?

I'm asking because I read through A Feast of Crows before I was too bored to keep going, and I am not remembering a single scene which dealt with the sexual assault of a man or a boy in the grotesque baroque detail with which the sexual assault of women and girls is depicted. Not one. However, there are certainly recorded examples in history and a growing body of historiography on the obvious fact that sexual assault is not now and was not ever the exclusive sorrow of women and girls.

So if including a scene of sexual assault in what seemed like every fucking chapter arose purely from a high-minded and totally disinterested regard for fidelity to the historical record in this imaginary land of zombie ice elves and dragons and shit, how come the incessant, tediously-lengthy descriptive passages about sexual assault are overwhelmingly those in which women or girls are the targets?

That is an amazing coincidence that this fidelity to the brutality of sexual assault is carefully detailed only in reference to one gender so that Martin and his fellow travelers can cater directly to their target market whilst getting kudos for their intellectual rigor in exploring the darker parts of the history of zombie ice elves and dragons and shit.

I hasten to add that I am not advocating an equal time policy for the depiction of sexual assault, because when an author dwells lovingly on sexual assault in their books I tend to wish they'd work out their deep-seated personal issues with a therapist instead of puking it out for the world to read (Jack Chalker and John Ringo to the white courtesy phone). I'm just pointing out that when it comes to claiming that reality is the objective when it comes to the current trend of 'realism', there's a hole in that argument through which you could drive a telepathic dragon. Or an army of zombie ice elves, according to choice.
posted by winna at 10:32 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


And I think that that's what a lot of the "realism" folks haven't done - if "realism" is not internal consistency, than what is?

That's easy; "Realism" in this context means "given a physical reality different from our own, how would actual human beings behave, what might society be like, and how might history develop?" Internal consistency is necessary but not sufficient.

Tolkien is not at all realistic simply because it is internally consistent.

I'm by no means asserting that all or even most fantasies need to be realistic in this sense. I enjoy unrealistic things sometimes. Some people might prefer them most of the time. But I don't; I prefer something that has human beings acting like human beings even if there are ice zombies and magic around.

How many times has the sexual assault of men or boys made it into Martin's endless doorstop series in the same kind of detail as the assault of women or girls?

Pretty often. In fact, the most horrific assault in the entire series happens to a male character. A viewpoint character, in fact.
posted by Justinian at 3:27 PM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Note that I'm not claiming Martin is perfect in regards to gender stuff. Who is, after all? He does have some weird male gazey things going on when he first describes female characters compared to male characters. But I think he does try, he just isn't perfect.
posted by Justinian at 3:30 PM on March 2, 2013


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