Friday, August 15, 2014

The Grim Gathering and Grimdark Fantasy

 A couple of years ago, I went to an author evening organised by Fantasy Faction which featured Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett and Myke Cole. I'd never read a word by any of them, but I was impressed by the way they talked about their books. Since then, I've read, enjoyed and reviewed the first books by Abercrombie and Brett. Cole attracts me less, not because I don't expect him to be good, but because real-world military stories aren't really my bag. I will try him, though — I may find him the exception that proves the rule. *

On Wednesday evening, Fantasy Faction organised a return event dubbed the Grim Gathering. Held at Waterstone's bookshop in Kensington High Street, this featured the original three, plus Mark Lawrence. Understandably, it was more important to have him than to keep the alphabetic theme going and get someone whose surname began with D.

The large space on Waterstone's lower floor was packed, and the authors were entertaining, especially Abercrombie. It was surprising, though, how few questions they could get through, with four people each giving full and informative answers. All the same, I felt we got a flavour of who each author was.

There was a good deal of discussion about the so-called Grimdark fantasy genre that's fashionable at the moment, with which all four are more or less identified. My reason for writing this is more to give some thoughts and reactions about the genre than simply a review of the event.

Grimdark, of course, is a convenient umbrella term. Like many musical trends (punk, for instance, a comparison which was mentioned during the evening) it lumps together many individuals who respond to a particular zeitgeist in often very different ways. Brett, for instance, disputes that his work is really Grimdark, and certainly The Painted/Warded Man ** seems to me to contain far more heroism than cynicism.

Although I've enjoyed what I've read of these authors so far, and intend to read more, I have two slight queries about how the genre is presented. Neither invalidates it, but the queries are there.

Firstly, a lot of use seems to be made of the phrase the world as it really is (or variations) to distinguish Grimdark from the more Tolkien-inspired fantasy of the 80s and 90s. This seems perilously close to the arguments traditionally used by those who want to insist we shouldn't read fantasy at all. We should concentrate on the "real world".

In any case, what is the world like, really? It's very easy to follow the news and conclude that the real world is all psychopathic killers, money-grubbing bankers and cynical politicians. That's a significant part of it, of course, and needs to be acknowledged by anyone presenting a broad view of this or any other world. But the real world also includes heroism, compassion and self-sacrifice: firefighters risking their lives to pull people out of burning buildings, or carers who dedicate their lives to looking after someone. I believe this side of the world needs to be acknowledged too, and can be writ large in fantasy as world-saving heroism and compassion.

The other thing that I find a slight annoyance is the perception that Grimdark is a startling new direction, and that all earlier fantasy was light and shining. Again, I'm reminded of punk, where the "year zero" attitude ignored the fact that there'd been plenty of punk before punk (come on, by what definition was The Who's My Generation not punk? Or Chuck Berry's No More Monkey Business?)

Cynical manipulators as fantasy heroes go back at least as far as Cabell's Jurgen. Conan (as originally written) was morally grey and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a deeper charcoal; Clark Ashton Smith's work was full of characters who would be very much at home in Grimdark, and E.R. Eddison was almost as Machiavellian as Martin. The trend intensified in the 60s and 70s through morally ambiguous heroes like Moorcock's Elric, Wagner's Kane and Donaldson's Thomas Covenant. And I have vaguer memories of more obscure "heroes" who made those look like shining paladins by comparison.

Then, from the late 70s, the pendulum swung to the optimistic and heroic: Brooks, Eddings, Weiss & Hickman and the rest. Even so, there were greyer authors like Gemmell, though it's probably fair to say the trend was a brightness that Martin — Grimdark's ultimate inspiration — broke through like a dark beacon.

Grimdark can perhaps be best seen as an unusually wide swing of the pendulum to the dark side, but not unique. The depth of its darkness can probably be put down to boundaries already pushed further in the modern age, although Lawrence pointed out at the Grim Gathering that horror has routinely included material for years that's far darker than anything he's done, without creating any particular comment. Nevertheless, it's not fundamentally a new idea.

Several of the authors on Wednesday made the point that Grimdark (however it's defined) hasn't by any means taken over fantasy, and that the genre is still a broad spectrum. I'd add the argument that there also doesn't have to be any absolute choice between positions on the spectrum. For myself, I've enjoyed Abercrombie and Brett, but I also still love Lord of the Rings. I get different impacts from them, and I've no wish for every book I read to affect me in the same way.

For my own writing, I probably fall somewhere in the middle, but I try to spread out a fair way on either side. I certainly don't have any time (except in comedy) for heroes whose strength is the strength of ten because their hearts are pure, but I suppose I'd characterise my favourite type of hero as an idealist with serious human flaws, who tries to do his or her best and sometimes succeeds. Not that I'm at all averse to the odd psychopath, or just an opportunist on the make; but I do try to balance them.

The authors characterised as Grimdark are important, and I suspect they'll be seen from the future as the defining fantasy authors of the twenty-teens, but there'll always be alternative fantasy visions for different tastes. And that's precisely how it should be. In the meantime, I'll read more by the authors at the Gathering and look forward to the next event Fantasy Faction organises.

* Going off at a complete tangent, I'd just like to clarify for anyone who's not already aware that this saying uses the old meaning of "prove" and properly means "the exception that tests the rule". Otherwise, it would be absurd.

** I'm not sure which to treat as the correct title. Although Brett is American, the book was published first in the UK as The Painted Man and subsequently in the US as The Warded Man. Even so, I find the US title far more convincing and appropriate (unlike, for instance, the ridiculous change from The Philosopher's Stone to The Sorcerer's Stone.)

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up, and I envy you getting to attend this.

    I enjoyed Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy, both for it's wry and subverted look at some fantasy tropes, and for some of the more academic aspects of the writing (it really illustrates narrative shifting with character voice in limited third, and putting world building out there in intriguing little dribbles without prologues, epilogues, or even maps), but yeah, sometimes the claims made by fans of GD are a bit overstated.

    "But the real world also includes heroism, compassion and self-sacrifice: firefighters risking their lives to pull people out of burning buildings, or carers who dedicate their lives to looking after someone."

    This completely. If your true purpose as a fantasy writer is to make your world "realistic," you need to show the entire spectrum of human behavior, not just the crapsack/pessimistic stuff. Good deeds sometimes do go unpunished. Relationships do sometimes work out. People do sometimes achieve their goals without being destroyed.

    Also, the dark, gritty stuff that's shown seems to be rather selective. There was a long thread over on AW about rape of women in fantasy and how grimdark writers seem to think it's necessary include it in their stories because it's realistic, but usually it's only women and the occasional young boy who they show being violated in this manner (though they'll show adult men being mutilated and tortured). In fact, adult men are frequently raped in warfare. Interesting that depicting this grim, dark reality is a bit too squicky for the grimdark crowd. Or maybe they're afraid adult men who are victimized in this manner will lose sympathy with male readers.

    "The other thing that I find a slight annoyance is the perception that Grimdark is a startling new direction, and that all earlier fantasy was light and shining."

    This too. How about the Elric books, or S&S (as you've mentioned), or even more recent epic writers like Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince series and Barbara Hambley's Winterland Saga, and Anne Bishops Dark Jewels? Some pretty gritty stuff in there.

    I do find it a bit annoying that women who write (and have written) darker fantasy now and in the past don't get mentioned by these authors or included in what seems to be an all-boys clique at the moment.

    There's some interesting stuff in this subcategory of fantasy, and some great, evocative writing. But you're right that it's only one part of the fantasy spectrum, albeit one that's getting a disproportionate share of attention right now. Like you, I tend to gravitate towards the middle, or maybe to the slightly gritty side of the middle.

    I suspect the pendulum will swing back eventually to a more optimistic norm. Pendulums tend to do this. The most important advice I've heard for aspiring writers in every genre--don't chase fads. Write what you'd most like to read, and write it as well as you can and from your heart.