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Grimdark and me

Discussion in 'Chit Chat' started by skip.knox, Apr 9, 2021.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I don't like grimdark. I have several reasons for this, but I came across one today that perhaps gets to the heart of the matter.

    I'm reading a novel by Lois McMaster Bujold. In it, she has a secondary character who is a standard sort--the tomboyish young woman who winds up a lady-in-waiting to the main character. Bujold takes care to make us like the character--she serves the MC well, is skilled and brave, and she's falling in love.

    And it struck me: this is exacty the kind of character who gets killed off in grimdark. It's practically a formula, isn't it? Introduce a character, make us like them or feel sympathy for them, and kill them. Realism!

    Nope, sez I. That good people suffer is certainly true (more than one is suffering cruelly in Bujold's book). That's realistic. But that's as far as reality goes. Reality doesn't make me care for that good person. Most good people I don't even know about.

    But it is absolutely not realistic to bring someone into someone's life, to contrive to make that person like them, and them kill them off. That's not reality, that's an author's choice. Reality doesn't care two nickels whether I like or even know that good person.

    My dislike of grimdark has more to do with the contract between author and reader. If the author is going to make me care about a character, then that character's fate--good or bad--has to matter. It can't be a mere device. It can't be decoration.

    So, I trust Bujold. She will do right by the characters and thereby do right by me the reader. With grimdark (looking at you, GRRM but also at many others), I don't trust the author. They'll have characters suffer for the sake of showing suffering. I don't find that interesting, still less do I find it moving.

    I have other complaints, and perhaps those can be separate threads. I wonder if you, reading this post, feel somewhat the same way I do.
     
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  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I liked everything I've read by Joe Abercrombie, so I'll identify him as an exception. Apart from his work, I'm just a bit tired of grimdark. I don't know if it's so much the contract between author and reader for me--I know what I'm getting. I like horror and horror writers will do the same sorts of things. But while a good horror story still interests me, grim dark in large part bores me these days and I'd just as soon read something uplifting and positive when I'm reading fantasy.
     
  3. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    While not technically grimdark, the Handmaid's Tale (the show) is very in that vein. The world is incredibly cruel and people go through horrible things. We're shown some of those things probably more than is required (I mean....the whole sewing their mouths shut thing has so many world building problems) but, generally, it fits the tone/type of story. Except June has insane plot armor. Handmaids have been sent to (presumed) death for less but they keep her alive (and let her access things no women should have access to) because she is the main character. I bought The Testaments the day it came out and boy did I not like it because {spoilers} it links very heavily with the show's canon instead of the book's canon, and it tries to redeem a character that was minor in the books but horrendously evil in the show. I understand what Atwood was trying to go with the themes but...you can't take things that only exist in the show and then say it's a totally separate canon from the show. You can't have a Very Evil Character suddenly be a sympathetic one. You also can't build up an Incredibly Evil Society and that imply it all falls apart just after the book ends* because some Heroes were brave. You can't have your (grimdark) cake and eat it, too.

    You're definitely right when you can see from a mile away the fate of a character because they fit a trope/formula it can be a real bummer or take you to of the story. IMO it's okay to be tropey/cliche if it's something the audience has never seen before, like most kids' books/movies/shows, but they're probably not reading grimdark stories. I think it all comes down to how "contrived" the set up for this is. Like if you're watching Top Chef, they might focus on a contestant a lot in the episode and you'll hear about how their brother died of cancer and that's why cooking is so important to them and that's why they're here, that's why they gotta win, and that person is guaranteed to either win that episode or get kicked off that episode. We never get backstory like that unless there's an (emotional) set up for it. Granted, structuring a season of reality TV is very different from structuring a novel, but it's the same principals of "what's the ulterior motive for them getting me emotionally invested here".

    *this is utter BS because the afterward of the first book states that Gilead existed for something like 200 years, while the second book is maybe 20-30 years into Gilead's history
     
  4. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    I've heard it argued that whilst grimdark is often extreme it does offer a bit more realism than traditional epic or high fantasy. The suggestion is that by depicting the harsh realities of life it speaks more to the world we live in than many other stories within the fantasy umbrella. Supposedly that realism translates into character development and allows authors to develop real and usually deeply flawed characters that are a result of their unforgiving world. This is then supposed to produce some really exciting arcs and narrative by casting aside some restrictions placed in other areas of fantasy. Because it’s not purely a case of good vs evil it becomes a case of real people vs real people and this means that protagonists and antagonists become more relatable to the reader. The problem I have with that sort of definition/justification is that it seems to be based on a very cliched and inaccurate view of high fantasy. Myths don't always end happily, neither do legends and other folk tales. The Lord of Rings doesn't have an entirely happy ending, the Silmarillion even less so. And thats before we consider childrens fiction like The Dark Is Rising.

    I think it was the UK newspaper The Guardian which defined grimdark fantasy as meaning bigger swords, more fighting, bloodier blood, more fighting, axes, more fighting and a not-all-that-covert commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers. To that definition I'd add more sex and a tendency to kill off characters seen as somehow soft. And for me, thats lazy writing. It saddens me that writers like GRR Martin and Joe Abercrombie fill their books with so many graphic descriptions of violence and sex, because their plotting and characterisation is strong enough to carry their books without all the gory details. To all this can be added a setting which all too often is dystopian and amoral. I don't like those sorts of settings, because despite the claims of greater realism those settings are unrealistic - real life isn't like that, not even in a war zone (and I've seen a few of those).

    With all that written, my fundamental objection to most grimdark fantasy is that the dystopian and amoral world view you get in grimdark fantasy absolves both the protagonists and the readers from any form of moral responsibility. And that I have a real problem with.
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >thats lazy writing.
    I share that sentiment. It is too easy to portray a bleak world--as easy as portraying one that is all sunshine and roses and happy endings. As for realism, it's overrated. There is absolutely a place--several, important places--for realism in fiction. Literary fiction addresses that. Fantasy lets things be larger than life, virtues as well as vices, and that has its place as well. Grimdark falls short because it presents the vices as larger and somehow more important and interesting than the virtues. That's less realistic, not more.

    The summary Mad SwedeMad Swede offers hits the mark: it's about more (blood, swords, etc.). I would offer that it is also about less; in particular, less about character. All too often the character arc is hardly more than someone struggling against terrible events at terrible odds only to discover the game was rigged from the start. The story becomes a one-note drone.

    I know there are many fans. I know some of my fellow writers here write that, and good on them. Writing is so damned hard, I'll cheer anyone who gets to The End. I was moved to start this thread solely because reading Bujold crystallized for me some of the reasons why I never took to the genre. And thought I'd share.
     
  6. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    skip.knoxskip.knox Define grimdark. Because Warhammer 40 000 is the origin of the term, yet I would argue that it is nowhere close to "bleak hopelessness" which seems to be predominant definition of the term. In fact, if Warhammer 40k is grimdark, then so is Tolkien's mythos with its theme of the long defeat (not the Lord of the Rings perhaps but... read the Silmarillion, I dare you). Personally, I actually enjoy such stories, and I suspect I might enjoy Lovecraft when I get around to reading him.

    So for what you have written, I would say that it is not grimdark - or at least, not the Warhammer 40k / Tolkien version of it. That is just grimderp, using cynicism for the shock value, and little more. Grimdark is characterized by hoplessness and dystopianism, by the sense of futility and despair - it does not matter what you do, you are still ultimately doomed to fail, and to lose everything. If you really want to drive the point home, then you can also throw in the lack of higher ideals. Grimdark is description of a setting, and of higher themes, not of the plot. A grimdark setting can have surprisingly optimistic novels (see Ciaphas Cain). To "bring someone into someone's life, to contrive to make that person like them, and them kill them off" is not grimdark, it is just cynicism, and poorly done shock value.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I don't like definitions. They tend to distract us into arguments rather than into discussions.

    If that's your argument (nowhere close to bleak hopelessness), then you need to ask why it seems to be the predominant definition of the term. Because that is the very impression I get as an outsider listening to the genre being discussed.

    Grimdark is indeed characterized to me by hopelessness and dystopianism. And that's exactly what I dislike. Not because it's sad, but because it's lazy writing. IMHO, of course. Being doomed to fail is exactly analogous to being destined to succeed. It just isn't very interesting to me.

    I would again contrast that with the novel I'm currently reading by Bujold. There I find terrible sacrifice, but the sacrifices not only make sense, they feel *important*. Having the sacrifice be unavoidable makes the story itself pointless. The sacrifice only gains meaning when something is won. That's why Tolkien isn't grimdark. We lost Frodo, but we retain Sam. If we lost Sam as well, that would be grimdark.

    But really and truly and honestly, I'm not trying to persuade anyone to anything. I just gained an insight into why I flinch away from the genre and wanted to share.
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don’t agree that it’s lazy. I’m not a huge fan, Abercrombie aside, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write or that writers who belong to that genre are lazy. I’ve heard similar things said about children’s literature, romance, or really any kind of writing or other content that’s written for girls (without spurring an argument relating to gender, material targeted at what are traditionally considered girl’s interests are devalued). Grimdark, like any other sub genre, has certain expectations that writers write toward. That does not make them lazy writers.
     
  9. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    As I said, it appears to me that you are confusing things, or else we are using different definitions. Grimdark does not need to be lazy writing, and I find the "everything will be fine, ultimately" angle to also be fully capable of lazy writing - and also inherently opposed to human nature.

    My perspective of the term comes from the setting which defined it to begin with - specifically, Warhammer 40 000. The setting is bleak, and it is indeed hopeless in the long run. It is a story of the long decline of humanity, of struggle against forces which are ultimately impossible to defeat, of human failings and of sacrifices that have to be made just to survive. But while it is bleak and hopeless, it is not bleak hopelessness. What people do still matters. Even if the "long run" will indeed lead to defeat, by perserving, by making sacrifices, humanity is able to still survive - and has, indeed, survived for millenia.

    And you know what? The above is exactly the same as Tolkien's mythos. And that is why I said that we need to define what "grimdark" is in the first place.
    • If Grimdark is merely characterized by hopelessness and dystopianism, then Tolkien mythos, A Song of Ice and Fire, Warhammer 40k, Warhammer Fantasy, and so on, are all grimdark. Now looking at the Wikipedia:
    • "Adam Roberts described it as fiction "where nobody is honourable and Might is Right"." This means that ASoIaF would be grimdark, but Tolkien mythos and large portions of Warhammer 40 000 and Warhammer Fantasy would not be.
    • "Genevieve Valentine called grimdark a "shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics".". That would be... most of the modern fiction. Tolkien's idealism is very rare nowadays.
    • "In the view of Jared Shurin, grimdark fantasy has three key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism (for example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and the agency of the protagonists: whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, grimdark is "fantasy protestantism": characters have to choose between good and evil, and are "just as lost as we are".". That would be Silmarillion, Akallabeth, ASoIaF, Warhammer 40k.
    • "Liz Bourke considered grimdark's defining characteristic to be "a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action ... as either impossible or futile". This, according to her, has the effect of absolving the protagonists as well as the reader from moral responsibility.". This means that none of the four noted in the previous bullet point would be grimdark.
    And grimdark doesn't mean you are "doomed to fail". You can still succeed within the context of the story... it is just that your success will not make much difference in the big picture of the things. Which to me is actually more interesting than the old trope of "hero saves the world" - unless, as in Tolkien, there is a good reason behind it. And Frodo didn't actually save the world to begin with, and I'd argue that what he did didn't make much difference in the grand scheme. Evil is still heading for ultimate, but worldly, victory.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    We can all differ; in fact, we do.

    I was merely reporting why I have yet to like any grimdark story I've read, and suggested one particular angle that recently occurred to me.

    I did not mean to suggest the writers themselves are being lazy. Rather, I'm suggesting that writing worlds in which everything is futile and doomed is as simplistic (lazy) as writing worlds in which the hero saves the world, overcoming every obstacle (Mary Sue, etc.). Except in grimdark's case it's being crushed by every obstacle even while seeming to win.

    Some of the Wikipedia definitions are telling. A world in which nobody is honorable is not an interesting world to me because it lacks breadth. I would argue strenuously that a world in which monarchs are useless is absolutely not realistic. It's contrived in order to make a preconceived point.

    WRT Bourke, I don't think that word means what you think it means. Valorisation. Valuation maybe? Or dispense with past participles here and just say darkness for darkness' sake. Grammar aside, I do think that strikes close to the mark. Darkness for the sake of being dark, setting one's story explicitly apart from the perceived general run of fantasy stories. Heroic fantasy, at least, which is what was dominant at the time grimdark came along. Sex for the sake of sex, virtue for virtue's sake, detailed for the sake of being detailed ... all of it is a kind of truncated story telling.

    Of course heroes are flawed. All interesting heroes are flawed. I can't think of a single novel I've read, in any genre, in which the hero was perfect and it was a good read.

    I've read Abercrombie, Hobb, Wolfe, Martin, and a number of others whose names don't come to mind as readily, I can acknowledge a level of craft in the writing, but none of it resonates with me. That seemed odd to me, so I speculate on why it might be so.
     
  11. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    You know, it would be nice if you gave a source for your argument that Tolkiens books suggest that evil will ultimately gain victory. That view is attributable mainly to Patrice Hannon, and it's based on the idea that the Lord of the Rings is an elegy. That doesn't make the Lord of the Rings a form of grimdark.

    As I wrote earlier, in my view all too many settings for what are termed grimdark stories are dystopian and amoral. Coupled to that is the idea that what you do may matter (to you, to a few others) but makes no difference in the end. Real life isn't like that, not even in a war zone. Doing the right thing is not futile or impossible. People do have a sense of honour and what they do does make a difference, and the concept that there is a right thing to do has its basis in idealism. So as soon as you produce a story in a setting where doing the right thing is futile or impossible then you have, in my view, taken a big step away from realism and have instead dived into a setting with no hope - a nihilstic dystopia.

    I find most grimdark settings and stories negative and unrealistic. I've seen more than enough unpleasant sights during my time in the military. I don't need to spend my spare time reading nihilstic stories set in dystopias with dishonourable heroes, written by people who think this is realism in fiction..
     
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    FTR, and because this thread is really all about me <grin>, I don't actually object to bleak reading. House of Mirth is devastating. The Collector by John Fowles is chilling and appalling. And On the Beach has as grim an outcome as you could ask. I think all are great works of literature.

    It's not that I've seen too much real horror--I've led a life comparatively free of horror and tragedy. I go back to what I originally posted. If the author is going to make me care about a character, then that character's fate has to matter. They cannot die or lose just because the world is grim and dark. That's insufficient for me.

    YMMV. Grimly. <g>
     
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm not even certain I've read much grimdark.

    I did read a novel recently that was unremittingly dark and grim. I enjoyed the tale and look forward to the second in the series if the authors ever decide to continue. (One has said on Goodreads that they are considering a continuation.) The thing that struck me most about the novel was the fact the characters were constantly on the move, struggling forward, always beset by troubles with hardly any hope of anything else, and there was never any real moment of happiness, joy, peace, fun ... or anything, really, but foreboding and constant struggle.

    If that's grimdark, then GRRM's series doesn't feel the same to me. There were plenty of thrilling, fun moments in his tale, when a character felt herself or himself to be in charge of the situation, or other moments when two characters had humorous conversation. I.e., the tale wasn't "unremittingly dark and grim."
     
  14. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    It is not that evil will ultimately gain victory, but that things are hopeless in this world. One of most important themes in Tolkien is one of decline and fall: everything that is beautiful and worthy of preservation is gradually either lost or corrupted. War against Morgoth is hopeless until the Valar intervene, but that intervention comes at the cost of Beleriand itself. Numenor gradually declines and is eventually lost. War against Sauron is won, but the Elves leave, dwarves also eventually disappear, and... well, Mythos is basically prehistoric history of our world. Need I say more? No matter how much we struggle, everything beautiful and worthy will eventually be gone from this world. The story of Numenor is basically the story of the world, but in much smaller scope, both physically and temporally. Death is inevitable, not only for people within the world, but also for all they built and ultimately for the world itself. The entire history of the world is nothing but a story of decay, a "long defeat". Should you desire a more "scientific" commentary, I found this:
    The theme of decline: Its instances and origins in Tolkien's legendarium
    Tolkien and the Long Defeat

    What is more, world itself is inherently corrupt(ed), ever since its making, due to Melkor interfering with the Music of the Ainur. Evil is inherent in the world, and it can never be defeated, unless the world (as in, the reality) itself is also remade.

    EDIT:
    Personally, I generally apply the "grimdark" label to the setting itself. Story can never be grimdark because it lacks the breadth, but setting can. "Darkness for darkness' sake" in a story is just run-of-the-mill cynicism, or however you want to call it.

    As for writing worlds in which everything is futile, well, see again what I wrote about Warhammer 40 000 (which so happens to be my favourite sci-fi setting, partly because it is Fantasy Holy Roman Empire InSpeeehs!). The entire theme of the setting is the same "long defeat" I described in Tolkien. But rather than Tolkien's theme of fading, this long defeat has a theme of corruption: neither good nor evil fade, but the good is eventually corrupted for the purposes of evil. It is as if Sauron's One Ring has been elevated to the universal scale.

    Yet despite that, there are many noble characters and stories in the setting. People do struggle, they fight, and they win. They protect each other and things they hold dear - and they often succeed. But what makes setting "grimdark" to me is a combination of the long-term hopelessness and the sheer scale at which things are happening. Contra to the blurb which describes Imperium as the "cruelest regime imaginable", Imperium is actually far from that. It is basically, as I noted, Holy Roman Empire in Space. It is nothing at all like the Nazi Germany or Soviet Union, and even European Union would seem tyrannical next to it. But the enemies it fights are so powerful and dangerous that extreme measures often have to be taken from sheer desperation. And there is no end to this desperation, no final victory in sight.

    Yes, there are victories. Honour matters. Setting is far from completely bleak and without goodness. But it is ultimately hopeless, with no final victory.
     
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2021
  15. LCatala

    LCatala Minstrel

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    As a side note, I don't actually think grimdark is amoral as a genre. It does posit that there are good and bad people, which is a moral view, but concludes that good things only happen to bad people, that good people always lose, and so it's not worth it trying to be good. That's still a moral statement, albeit one that seems to come from the mind of someone who is clinically depressed. "Cynicism" is a good descriptor, but "nihilism" isn't.
     
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