What If Nobody Knew About Grim and Gritty?

Posted by on June 21st, 2010 at 4:34 PM

Something I’ve said before but will repost here:

A fantasy blogger writes a bad review of The Magicians. What I take away: you can see the reviewer reinventing the wheel because the phrase “grim and gritty” apparently does not exist outside the comics realm. In expressing her distaste for the book, which she finds heavyhandedly downbeat and cynical, she says:

The Magicians is like every Fantasy novel if they were stripped of any warmth, sense of wonder, heroism and replacing it all with what can be interpreted as a dose of “reality”. …

“Real” is very much the key word here and the fundamental theme of the book …

The clear attempt of taking the Fantasy and making it less fantastic by adding an element of “reality” to it, in order to tell us that hey, “life is in shades of grey people, there is no black and white” …

One comics fan could say to another, “It’s like Harry Potter and Narnia done grim-and-gritty, but, you know, good.” (At least I would say that, since I liked the book.) A non-comics fan has to improvise.

Didn’t fantasy writing go thru a grim-and-gritty phase of its own? I would have assumed some kind of parallel development, since all geek entertainment underwent the same rise in audience age during the 1980s. Or did it?

A side note. One paragraph encapsulates the familiar Internet phenomenon of angrily not caring:

I feel so strongly about Quentin that I almost wished that he was actually suffering from medical depression in which case he could be treated with anti-depressants. I almost wished that everything in this book was happening inside his head. Almost, because really, I couldn’t.Care.Less .

Look how that paragraph starts and then how it ends. Oh well, ’twas ever thus.

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5 Responses to “What If Nobody Knew About Grim and Gritty?”

  1. Wesley says:

    Didn’t fantasy writing go thru a grim-and-gritty phase of its own? I would have assumed some kind of parallel development, since all geek entertainment underwent the same rise in audience age during the 1980s. Or did it?

    Not really, no. Adults have been reading fantasy novels as long as fantasy has existed as a genre.

    Also, literary SF/Fantasy fans don’t age in the same way as superhero fans. A superhero fan graduates from 1960s biff-pow Batman to The Dark Knight Returns. Fantasy fans, like readers in general, are more likely to graduate from young adult novels to books that skew older, not because they’re gorier, but because they’re smarter and more complex.

    And you have to remember that fantasy is a more diverse genre than superhero comics and most of it is not “geek entertainment” in the sense you mean. Some fantasy novels are grim-and-gritty in the “Infinite Crisis” sense but (A) most of them are smarter about it than “Infinite Crisis,” and (B) you can spend years reading fantasy and never bother with them. The phrase “grim and gritty” exists, but it’s not a catchphrase identifying a widespread phenomenon as it is in the comics world.

  2. Joe S. Walker says:

    “Some fantasy novels are grim-and-gritty in the “Infinite Crisis” sense but (A) most of them are smarter about it than “Infinite Crisis,” and (B) you can spend years reading fantasy and never bother with them.”

    Or in other words, it’s not as if virtually all fantasy novels were published by only two firms each with a lunatic impulse to tie together everything they’ve ever put out.

  3. Tom Crippen says:

    Good point, Joe S. Walker.

    Wesley, if you’re around, do you mind filling in your thought that most fantasy “is not ‘geek entertainment’ in the sense you mean”? I want to make sure we’re on the same page.

    When you say “Adults have been reading fantasy novels as long as fantasy has existed as a genre” … true, I can’t deny that some fantasy novels have always been read by some adults (“Vathek,” for example). But paperback fantasy books of the 1970s seemed to be mainly bought by kids, with the range going from junior high to maybe a bit past college.
    Admittedly, this is all based on my personal impressions, both as a fantasy reader back in the day and as someone who bumped up a bit against other fantasy readers.

    Back then a reader had to look for YA or for paperbacks slanted toward adventure and (possibly) mild suggestions of sex. Tolkien represented the upper limit of maturity for the genre. Lin Carter had his Adult Fantasy reissues, but not for more than a few years, and he had to specify the “Adult” part.

    Of course, this doesn’t cut against your belief that fantasy readers age differently than superhero fans. I don’t read fantasy anymore, but my impression is that sword and sorcery and John Carter ripoffs (both of which I loved at age 12) have pretty much retreated from the bookstores. If so, that would indicate a certain aging in the fantasy reader, just not the sort of aging that produces more interest in seeing familiar old characters (or types) behaving in grim/downbeat/nasty new ways.

    “The phrase ‘grim and gritty’ exists, but it’s not a catchphrase identifying a widespread phenomenon as it is in the comics world.”

    So it’s possible that some other fantasy blogger might have said The Magicians was “Narnia done grim and gritty,” only at the risk of not being understood by some of his/her readers. All right, I’ll buy that.

  4. Wesley says:

    Wesley, if you’re around, do you mind filling in your thought that most fantasy “is not ‘geek entertainment’ in the sense you mean”?

    When you said “geek entertainment,” I thought of the kind of fantasy that would match the general aesthetic of a mass-media-focused comics convention–third-hand Tolkien and D&D knockoffs, for instance… maybe the kind of fantasy DC would gladly sell alongside its superhero books, if it had fantasy to sell. I may have been unduly influenced by the “grim and gritty” context here.

    I basically just meant that only one particular slice of the genre fits that context. Also, many books that might superficially appear to work with the same materials–secondary worlds, magic, quests–are themselves reasonably mature works. (Actually, I’d argue that The Lord of the Rings is a more mature work than most people would assume, especially from the movies–my experience is that it bored me as a teenager, I only made it to the end when I decided to try it again in my twenties, and now that I’m in my thirties I’m just beginning to appreciate it in retrospect.)

    My impressions on age and the fantasy audience come from a different era than yours, but my impression is that there’s always been a sizable adult contingent among literary SF/Fantasy fandom.

    As for the kind of fantasy that’s current… there’s not much sword and sorcery in the Conan-the-Barbarian sense, but epic fantasy of the Lord of the Rings variety is as popular as ever. Some of it actually is grim and gritty (like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie). Steampunk and Paranormal Romance are also doing very well. (I must admit I’m not a fan of either… fantasy writers I’m currently enthusiastic about include Jeff VanderMeer, Steven Brust, Kelly Link, Laurie J. Marks, China Mieville, and others I won’t remember until after I’ve hit “submit comment.”)

  5. Tom Crippen says:

    “Geek entertainment” is a beautifully vague term, which is one reason I like it. To my mind, “geek” doesn’t have to mean schlocky or immature. But the term itself is a bit of a sneer, so it’s hard to keep various negative connotations from sneaking in.

    As for “grim and gritty” — actually, I think that can be another blog post.