It’s weird being a child of the internet.
I get annoyed when people bring up memes that I’ve already known about and gotten tired of six weeks before. I’m waiting for the Harlem Shake to catch on in earnest and become even more unbearable. It enrages me to no end that I’m in a position where I can actually say something like: “you still laugh at Grumpy Cat? No, dude, it’s all about Shiba Confessions now.”
That said, though, I’m actually kind of glad that the phrase “grimdark” has caught on enough for us to talk about it.
First, a definition: “grimdark” is when a story’s setting, mood or theme is one of relentless violence, despair and grit, usually to a degree that some would find excessive to the point of absurdity. Grimdark tends to be defined as self-serving; that is, grimdark is grimdark for the sake of conveying an exceptionally dark and brutal setting rather than as a product of the story.
It was originally coined to describe the setting of Warhammer 40k, derived from its tagline “in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” And, like all things coined on the internet, it’s undergone quite a few changes in definition and application until it’s pretty much used for whatever someone happens to disagree with or dislike at the time.
Including fantasy novels.
If you run in the same circles I do (and if you’re reading this blog, chances are you do), you’ve probably heard the label applied to authors like Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Richard K. Morgan, sometimes George R.R. Martin. All very good authors whose work I have appreciated, despite (and in some cases, because of) their bleakness. And internet labels being what they are, they can’t be considered to have a lot of academic integrity, so nebulous that they can be twisted to apply to just about anything.
Unsurprisingly, and perhaps somewhat justifiably, I think there’s a dismissive attitude toward the word. “Oh, it’s just these people who want to return fantasy to white hats and evil orcs upset that there aren’t enough puppies and rainbows,” they say. “We deal in raw, gritty stuff. The real world.” Grimdark is a word that we’re kind of kicking around with no real discussion going on about it.
And I think that’s a mistake.
As people who make our bread and butter off of words, you’d think we’d know that even the most whimsically-tossed ones have some value. And the fact that we have this particular word to deal with as it pertains to trends in our craft is something that I don’t think we should discount so swiftly.
It’s very easy to sign off accusations of grimdarkness as overreaction, because sometimes it is. There are people who want sunshine, bunnies and rainbows in their books (these people are out of luck). There are people who think it’s morally irresponsible to portray such crass darkness and to not “think of the children” (the people are stupid). But there is a real danger in dismissing the word because there are some questions that should be asked.
How much weight does violence carry?
What’s the worth of a good deed?
Is striving to be a better person an unrealistic goal?
If everything is dark, how can we tell?
How many different ways can we say “people suck, war is hell, the world is a bottomless shithole” and still have it mean something?
And this is where we need to be wary of the meaning behind grimdark. The danger is not in corrupting children or in changing the face of fantasy, but in robbing us, the reader, of the scope of consequence.
Frankly, I think it’s kind of shitty that wanting some hope and love in one’s books is considered unrealistic, on par with rainbows made out of kittens that slide into a pot of gold. It seems like in our quest to be taken seriously as a genre and thus distancing ourselves from a legacy of goodly wizard, naive hobbits and evil orcs, we’ve hit a point where we want to deny everything that made us enjoy these stories in the first place.
Qualities like hope and love, stories about people trying to do the right thing (even if we disagree about what the right thing is sometimes), have a value beyond just making people feel good.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to explore the darker side of a story. But when we think of the word “explore,” our minds are filled with the ideas of discovery, trekking out into the unknown and seeing what’s on the other side of the hill. We tend to ignore what makes the word so powerful in the first place: where we came from.
Exploration is just as much about where you came from as where you’re going.
Exploration is only impressive because you’re leaving the safe comfort of home behind you. Explorers are only heroes because we know what they’re leaving behind. They have to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar and it’s the familiar that gives the unfamiliar weight and meaning. And it’s the familiar, I think, that’s missing in grimdark.
Grimdark happens when we’re born in shadows. The skies are always dark, people are always terrible, war is ever-present and the heroes are always justified in doing terrible things because that’s just how things are done. We know nothing of the world beyond the fact that it’s shitty. And because it’s shitty, the shit stops stinking. We commit that most heinous of crimes in writing: we become banal.
Violence isn’t shocking, it’s just something to do. Rape isn’t horrifying, it’s a common form of social interaction. War isn’t hell, it’s Monday. Loss isn’t loss because you were going to lose it anyway, so who cares.
It may sound like I’m advocating for an abolition of all violence, horror and grit in fantasy. Anyone who has read literally anything by me can probably tell you that’s a hoark. Truth is, as a reader, I’m kind of advocating for more masochism. I’m asking for you to show me the sunlight so the darkness has more meaning. I’m asking for you to make me love a character so you can hurt him later. I’m asking for you to show me some kindness and hope so that the emptiness where they used to be is all the more profound than if they had never existed at all.
I like it that way, baby.
And the man who does this sort of thing quite excellently is Scott Lynch (who, incidentally, is gearing up to release his third book, hallelujah). His work has a lot of deft wordplay, fast jokes and charming interactions, but no one would dare call it whimsical. And anyone who read The Lies of Locke Lamora can pinpoint exactly the moment where he crushed your soul.
Look, as a dude who has written scenes where the walls are literally painted with blood, I’m aware of the irony of criticism I’m offering here. And honestly, I wonder if I can only really start looking at this carefully given where I’ve come from and what I’ve written. Or maybe it’s just a desire to be different that’s driving me.
My latest work has me asking a lot of these questions. I’m wondering what gives violence its impact: how it happens or who it happens to? I’m wondering what makes a dark world dark: the people who act like shit or the people who don’t? I’m wondering what a dead body means: scenery or conflict?
Maybe you’ll have to tell me if I got it right when it comes out.