The Value of Grit by Joe Abercrombie

Gritty author Joe Abercrombie wrote an interesting article on the level of grit in fantasy books that's well worth a read. Especially for those little goodie-two-shoes SFF fans who are always whining about this particular aspect found in various works.

Here's a teaser:

I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of grit in fantasy books. The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook. I’m going to be vague about who I mean that I may properly remove all nuance from their arguments and construct a total straw man, of course. This is the internet, after all, I wouldn’t want facts or charitable interpretations to get in the way of my pontificating. But I think we can accept that some people think things have got too gritty. Or maybe gritty in the wrong way. Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which seems by definition to be pejorative – excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness. There’s often what seems to me a slightly weird double standard applied of, ‘I find this thoroughly horrible and disgusting therefore the author must have intended me to be titillated and entertained!’


Others are less evangelical, but there’s a tendency to see grit as skeevy. As by default an appeal to the lowest common denominator. As wallowing in low-grade moral slime like a pig in filth for no better reason that the amusement of neanderthal idiots. We idiots, of course, need and deserve amusement as much as anyone else, if not more, and I’m happy to fill that need, but such criticisms ignore what grit has to offer to all kinds of other readers and, I would argue, entirely miss why it has become so popular of late.

Now before anyone makes a straw man out of me, let me say that this is not intended as some kind of manifesto. I don’t think everything has to be gritty by any means, in fact there’s a degree to which grit loses its power the more of it there is. Every writer has to find their own style, their own way to be truthful. And with great grit comes great responsibility. It’s easy in an earnest desire to be truthful, or perhaps a less earnest desire to bludgeon the reader with the amazing dirty grim gritty grim depths of which you are capable, to ride roughshod on your spiky horse over rightly sensitive issues. To cause offence through crap writing. Maybe to a degree that’s inevitable. Removing all crap writing from a given book is a herculean challenge. But I believe the role of a writer is not to avoid offence. Just to think carefully afterwards and reflect on how you might do better next time. To be assessing criticism and constantly striving to become that little bit less crap. But you’ve also sometimes got to laugh in the face of criticism. Because the role of the writer is also to throw caution to the wind and write the most honest and heartfelt books you can. Better to have a book that many readers love and some find revolting than a book that no one reads at all. Far, far better. Gritty is one tool in the writer’s arsenal, and it’s one I personally like to use. In discussing gritty, I’m going to be a little gritty. Possibly even grimdark. But if you really don’t like that shit, why are you even here?


There was a time when epic fantasy seemed to spend a whole lot of time on setting. It was about the maps, monsters and magic systems. The authorial voice hovered above the characters at some remove in a third person omniscient kind of way, occasionally dipping into their thoughts for a heroic aside. These days a lot of writers choose to get closer, to write in tight point of view, to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be those people and how they see the world. And extreme people in extreme situations may well think, feel, and observe some pretty extreme stuff. I’d argue it’s very hard to write a convincing, immersive combat scene in tight point of view without including those details of blood, pain, fear, and horror that by definition take it into the arena of gritty. You don’t have to be an actual mass murderer yourself to realise that real violence is painful, dirty and deeply unpleasant, with sudden and explosive lasting physical and psychological damage stripped of all romance. Violence, related truthfully in tight point of view, is gritty. Of course you could find your drama elsewhere. In commerce, in conversation, in romance. But epic fantasy is about war, is about battle, is about violence and people who inflict and suffer it. These are live and pressing topics which people want to read about.


The modern world, with its 24 hour coverage of every point of view, seems like a much murkier place, at least to me. Perhaps we no longer accept the idea that people can be totally good or totally evil. At least we begin to suspect that they’re often not. That sometimes we’re dealing more with the greater good and the necessary evil. That the exercise of power requires compromises with the dark side, and high motives rarely entirely survive contact with reality. That everyone thinks they’re good, and that good people in bad corners might have to do bad things. Some of us want to read about such characters. We may not want every character in every book to be a morally grey irredeemable torturing tortured fuckwad. But some shades of grey, or even black, in some parts of a genre is a healthy thing. The bad things our good people have to do? They’re gritty. The good motives the bad people have in order to make them at all believable? You know what, they’re gritty too. When the whole thing becomes such a moral jumble that it’s really difficult any longer to tell which are the bad or good guys? That’s really gritty.


Forget historical accuracy. The truth is fantasy is rarely about the world as it was. That’s what historical fiction is for. It’s a reaction to the fantasy that’s come before. Gritty fantasy is a reaction to and a counterbalancing of a style of fantasy in which life is clean, meaningful, and straightforward, and the coming of the promised king really does solve all social problems, and there are often magical solutions to the horrors – like death, illness, and crippling wounds – that plague us in the real world. Good fantasy does not have to gaze wistfully over its shoulder at an imagined past, it can cast its uncompromising eye on the now. . .


In the end, ‘teh gritty’ is another tool in the toolbox. Grit is an inclusion. Not grit is an absence. Nothing to prevent gritty books including the ennobling, the clean, the beautiful. Indeed, I’d argue that the extremes of darkness only allow the glimpses of light to twinkle all the more brightly, if that’s the effect you’re after. Clean books deny themselves a chunk of the physical and emotional spectrum. Not to mention the wonderful, versatile and expressive word, ‘fuck’. And yeah, a lot of gritty dwells more in the dark half, perhaps, but often less than people tiringly bemoan, and no book exists in a vacuum, all books grow out of what has come before. A lot of gritty writing is about counterbalancing the heaps of clean, shiny, good guys win type stuff which dominated commercial fantasy throughout the 80s and 90s and is still, as far as I’m aware, being written very successfully and in large quantities.


And the fact is, for those who don’t like it, one has to smile, shrug and say – Tough Grit. There have always been rich seams of darkness, cynicism, savagery and moral ambiguity in fantasy, but this stuff is in the commercial heart of the genre now, and at the core of many of those examples that are spilling out into the mainstream. There are an awful lot of readers who love it, who find it has reinvigorated their interest in a tired genre, and the genie won’t go back in the bottle. I would say sorry, but I’m not.


There are still plenty of writers and publishers very successfully putting out more traditional stuff if you really need another righteous hero endlessly prevailing against the odds. In due course I don’t doubt the pendulum will swing back at least some of the way towards romantic and heroic. It’ll just take one great, interesting, exciting book to do it and I look forward to reading it. Who knows, I might even try to write it. But for the moment most of the debuts, most of the things that are really generating excitement, are more or less gritty. In this, fantasy is simply starting to catch up with what’s been going on in TV for some time now, and where written westerns and thrillers have been for years.

Follow this link to read the full piece. As for me, I wholeheartedly agree with Joe. . . =)

6 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, but as Abercrombie himself points out, denegrating those who don't like "gritty" is arrogance,too. Just because one doesn't like grit (and this is coming from one who doesn't mind a "gritty" novel), doesn't mean they they less sophisticated in their reading tastes. To be condescending to such (they are naive, disconnected to "reality", etc.) is just as annoying as the self-righteousness displayed by the non-gritty faction.

Morrigan said...

^ Except Abercrombie made it very clear that he's not denigrating those who don't like "grit". Seems like you didn't even read the piece...

Patrick said...

I did!

I'm not denigrating those who don't like grit.

I'm denigrating those who come on various boards and can't stop whining about grit.

The genre is big enough for everyone. I don't understand why they feel the need to bitch to such a degree... :/

Anonymous said...

Morrigan, I did read it and if you will note in my comment I acknowledge that Abercrombie clearly does not denigrate (seems you didn't read my comment). In fact, I appreciated Abercrombie's essay because he did an excellent job of describing the value of grit. As to your comment Pat, I hope you don't understand that I'm not whining about grit (indeed, I've come to appreciate grit primarily through your blog), but what I think troubles many grit-whiners is that there is sense of disdain from grit-lovers, as if those who don't like grit are some less sophisticated, or appreciative of "reality". Having read your blog faithfully, you yourself have admitted in reviews that you have a bit of this bias. Which is why, again thanks to you and your list of other bloggers, I go to at least two other reviewers. More pointedly, your case that you denigrate those who can't stop whining about grit, is it possible that you can't stop whining about non-grit whiners? You are pro-grit, that's cool, but that doesn't mean you have to push your pro-gritness by denigrating non-gritters. I'll end now since I'm pretty sure I just slaughtered the English language with a bunch of made up terms. In any case, I loved the essay and even when we disagree, thanks Pat for making it available.

darkul said...

Sorry, this will be a long one and maybe on one understands what I'm writing about but I was in the mood.

I admit: pro-gritter here, since GRRM or maybe Tolkien (hehe, no really?).

I began reading fantasy with Lord of the Rings decades ago. Followed by bad or much more easy fantasy or even copies. Now and then there were some pearls but I will not list them here. Would go too far.

I always wanted to read about a hero, wanted to be one for myself, as a most children want. A clean one, doing the right things at the right time and getting the most beautiful princess in the world :)

Back to LotR:
As a child I disliked how dark, evil and almost mature the story grew, even if there was no "gritty" in it. I wanted heroism and luck and love and great deeds. I did not understand war as such and I did not want to read about that. Maybe it grew too complex on me. As a young boy I could not handle that. I was raised in the believe that war is unnecessary in every aspect, every argument could be solved with words and love. Not so in LotR.
Re-reading the books several times I found more pleasure and depth in character development and the whole story as such. I could understand it better, I was more interested. And to this day, as for many readers, LotR will be in my heart as one great story of straightforward fantasy with a few different storylines and war, yep.

I guess this was the first step to darker fantasy. In my first fantasy book ever. But it took a long road to travel to the grit.

You may say: 'Wait, LotR dark or even gritty?' No, for sure it is not gritty in the way we want to discuss the new wave of authors such as Abercrombie, Erikson, GRRM as the most prominent of them.
I wanted the gray aspects of stories and characters. I doubted that people would be good or evil alone. Far more interesting is a mix, an insecurity for the reader and the character, doubts, anxieties, longings, the brutal truths and subtle lies.
Oh, lies, sweet lies of Severian in 'The Book of the New Sun'. My main encouter with an unreliable narrator.

After reading much traditional fantasy stuff and almost losing interest in this genre, I have to admit that the names I mentioned brought me back, along with China Miéville (yeah, steampunk, but it did the trick) and a German writer called Tobias Meissner. Most of those writers have a phenomenal talent writing gritty and intelligent fantasy. And the best of all, each one of them has his own style, nothing copied, nothing seemed that it was there long ago in another book. For sure not Erikson's outputs.

So, to me, without any doubt, people who only read traditional fantasy, miss a great deal of what is possible, a big amount of depth and also fake-realism. It shows truths some don't want to see or read about even if they know that fights are often a brutal thing.

I always disliked the magic systems where a young hero swings his magic wand and speaks a few latin words to create a lightning, a frog, or whatever. This is also a weakness in Harry Potter. If it wouldn't have been that way of executing magic it could have been a really good book, who knows ;)

Imagine Tayschrenn swinging his magic wand, 'blablabla', creating a rolling wall of pure energy and turning a complete army of 10000s in jumping and laughing pink hearts. This is the felt way in many traditional fantasy stories.
Better read how the Malazans do it (or not, if you know what I mean with Meanas). That's far more fascinating and interesting.

Abercrombie also states that PoV is way better to deepen the knowledge of a character. That is a fact. An omniscient teller is always just a teller, not the character himself. With the exception that teller and character are the same, naturally.


darkul said...

The same with violence which is just a grim and gritty action no matter how cold blooded the protagonists are. They assess, they decide, they doubt themselves, they overestimate, they reckon, they try to survive most of the time. In some cases gore descriptions may be too much, yes, but I have to agree with Joe, this is what the protagonists or viewers see and feel, no romance in the act, no black censoring bar over the scene.

The same goes for the dialogues. As Erikson described in one of his essays he almost never uses info dumps in such conversations. This is not how people talk to each other, whether they are mutual familiar or not. There are secrets, unspoken truths, hidden threats or deeper meanings, sometimes those characters know each other so good or from previous meetings that they don't need to tell what both already know. And sometimes, it is necessary to turn away from poetic language and let those characters talk as they are not in a Shakespeare drama. If "fuck" means damned, use it, if fuck means fuck, use it, I see know problem in that, if it all fits in the context.

The first writer since a long time who seems to show that traditional fantasy could be more interesting than it has been seems to be Pat Rothfuss. The story seems just as many. Young guy studies 'magic' and will be a hero. Will this be so? There are many aspects which seem to differ from the usual way.
I'm excited how Pat will conclude his story in the thrid book.
(Kingkiller Chronicles, if someone asks)

There are more authors, I know, but I go for the most prominent ones. To me.

So, finally, from my way as a child of reading heroic and also easy fantasy I wandered to the depths of Malazan.
For me the definition of epic fantasy, overall complexity and depth. Yes, I think that this is actually the most sophisticated work the fantasy genre has ever produced and I smile when I hear my nephew (aged25) talks about how great Eragon was. Oh my ...

Most gritty authors try to make the reader think. Turning off the brain is not possible if you want to follow along, to see every twist and turn. There is not just the gritty aspect alone, but also the philosophical one, see R Scott Bakker or Erikson again.
And this is why I always have a knowing smile on my lips if a traditional fantasy reader tells me how intelligent and sophisticated a work he read was. But there are rarely people in my area who like gritty or complex fantasy. They don't want to use there brains after a day of hard work or family issues. Understandable enough but no argument against gritty.

Other example:
I never could persuade or convince a friend of mine to read GRRM's Game of Thrones. But I knew, if she ever would try it, she would like it. But she just said she disliked such pseudo-historian gritty fantasy totally (even if she reads horror stories).
But, oh, strange, what happened?
She watches GoT on TV and it is the greatest show she ever saw.
What happened next? She couldn't wait and bought all books and was through in less than a month.
Great. I'm not as persuasive as a TV show, it seems.

I drifted from gritty to sophisticated, as you saw.
I just can't read traditional fantasy anymore. There is not much it can give me. Maybe Joe can change that when he has the idea for such a book.

But I see a danger here. Maybe some authors step on the gritty train just because of the success or just because they want to be gritty. That is not enough, if you just show brutality, blood and gore. This would be called splatter. I hope that those differences will always be made by the readers.