Stopping the Pendulum

This week, while I was perusing my reddits I noted an excellent bit of writing by author Joe Abercrombie, musings on the merit of grit in Fantasy. Here is a link, read it or skim it (I’ll wait). I am shamed to say that the only book of his that I’ve read is Best Served Cold. I can’t decide if I loved it, or thought it was merely well written but not to my tastes. I have no qualms about loudly proclaiming the value of his piece on grit, however, and will loudly encourage everyone to read it, possibly even abusing my linking privileges.

What caught me is the idea that Fantasy often swings between two opposing points, a pendulum of sorts. One point is represented by gritty fantasy, which many feel is more realistic and more dramatic. The other point is represented by a more romantic style, which deals with high morality and pure wonder. In truth most books fall far short of either pole, but the idea of a pendulum swinging between the two is an accurate description of the constant tug of war in Fantasy since the genre become commercially viable in paperback form.

A Pendulum. Think Poe.

Every few years it seemed while I was growing up fantasy would start to advertise how this new crop of writers was grittier and edgier, after that played out for a bit a triumphant return to good ol’ classical fantasy would be announced. This happened, in my mind at least, over and over. By the time George R.R. Martin came along I was quite tired of this dichotomy and had read enough of the genre old and new to see it as just another bit of theorycraft. As a reader I enjoyed both types of books, so long as they were well written and in-line with my current interests. I would be happy if I never had to endure another discussion about which type of fantasy was better. In fact I would like to destroy the pendulum and bury the broken remains in some remote location where only the most diligent of theorycrafters can dig it up.

You see, as mr Abercrombie notes, grit is just part of the range of modern fantasy. I agree with this wholeheartedly. The genre is big enough for any well-written book be it gritty or as bright and cheerful as it gets. The readers will decide what they want to read, and if people I know are any indication many of them will enjoy both points of the pendulum and everything in between.

Fantasy is a growing genre. It is expanding into new eras and areas. It is dealing with new ideas that older works never visitted. Industrial age fantasy explores the wonders of invention but also the grim side of urbanization and alienation. Modern and Urban fantasy, and paranormal romance explore the same issues from different angles producing wildly divergent types of fantasy that attract new readers to the genre and give old readers new playgrounds. Why would we want to hinder this?

What you like is a matter of personal taste. Any serious person comes to realize that others do not always share their tastes. Some theorycrafters try to edify their own personal tastes with grand constructs, “laws”, and long articles on how the style that they prefer is the “one true Fantasy”…  As if anyone in their right mind wants to reduce the genre to the narrow paths it once trod. All these arguments can be reduced to personal preference, and all the effort wasted on them could be better spent writing more books. The readers will decide what they want to read.

The clash between gritty and classical fantasy is a false dichotomy. We can have both. Both can be good.  Game of Thrones is awesome gritty fantasy. Lord of the Rings is also well regarded, I hear. Many readers enjoy both. Any arguments that say one style or another corrupts the genre are ultimately self-serving and false.

Each author and each book, and each world in Fantasy is like a lens through which the reader can peer and catch a glimpse of something new and wondrous. People will often gravitate to the lenses which work best with their own views of the world, either fortifying or challenging them in the way that they need. Since the world is full of people with different views, why would we want to limit our range of fantasy experiences? It just seems dumb to me. If I don’t like a book I don’t have to read it. Books that I don’t like won’t ruin the genre. Fantasy has outgrown this old argument. So let’s cut the pendulum down, burn it, bury the ashes and move on.

P.S: It Occurs to me what I really appreciate about the Abercrombie article is that he acknowledges that grit is an artist’s tool and that he does not even try to slam “opposing” styles of fantasy. He simply notes what grit adds to the genre without trashing anyone else. Nicely done. Proof, in my mind, that we have started to move beyond this already.

P.P.S: Apparently people are still chatting about this. My favourite new article on the whole thing comes from Sam Sykes, who seems to be the only other person out there who knows where Grimdark comes from. Points to you mr Sykes! Here is a the link.

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6 comments on “Stopping the Pendulum

  1. […] Fantasy author C.P.D. Harris responds to Joe Abercrombie at Domains of the Chosen and points out that gritty versus classic fantasy does not have to be an either/or question – it’s possible for both types and more to coexist. Bonus points for admitting that urban fantasy and paranormal romance are as much a part of the broad spectrum of fantasy as epic fantasy, whether traditional or gritty. And indeed it is interesting that all of the discussions on grimdark fantasy usually focus exclusively on the epic fantasy subgenre and a very specific sort of epic fantasy, too (female writers like Karen Miller or Tamara Siler-Jones don’t qualify for gritty epic fantasy, even if they write gritty), even though some of the best examples of gritty fantasy that is not just dark for the sake of being edgy were urban rather than epic fantasy (Rob Thurman and Caitlin Kittredge’s Black London series come to mind). But then, if there is one thing that could unite the fans of traditional and gritty epic fantasy, it’s that urban fantasy is inferior to their chosen subgenre, because it has girl cooties. […]

  2. Well done, I enjoyed the read. Can you provide some good examples for the “non-grim” side of the pendulum since that is the type of books I generally prefer.

    • grimkrieg says:

      Sure Michael. Just keep in mind this is personal preference. I find some things grim that others do not. I’m also assuming you want stuff that is decently readable.

      Non-grim side:
      Codex Allera and Dresden Files (Jim Butcher): Has some grim elements here and there, but Dresden is a consistent hero despite his problems. Allera is purely heroic.

      Tales of the Otori (Lian Hearn): A coming of age tale set in a magical version of Japan, has a bit of grit but is very romantic and beautiful. It does get nitpicked a fair bit by culture fanatics. The sequel book is much darker.

      Last light of the Sun and Ysabel (Guy Gavriel Kay): Kay varies a fair bit in tone and these are my favorites in the more uplifting set of his writing.

      The King’s Blades series (Dave Duncan): The first few books are very heroic and remind me a fair bit of the three musketeers.

      The Shannara series (Terry Brooks): The first three books tend heavily towards Tolkien and are not especially gritty.

      The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan): I’d say Jordan is the current benchmark on non-grim fantasy, though he can get kind of fatalistic.

      For Classics most Arthurian Tales (Morte D’Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight) and the Song of Roland fall into the is category.

      The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss): Some people would argue with me, but I find the first book very uplifting, with a very few grim moments.

      The Way of Kings (Brain Sanderson): He focuses more on hopelessness and psychology than actual grit. Moving very strongly towards a super-epic so far.

      Balanced
      The Ryria Revelations (Micheal J Sullivan) : Some nice gritty bits with some wonderful heroism. You know all about this one, being the author. I’m tempted to use it as the benchmark for Balanced fantasy.

      The Rhapsody Series (Elizabeth Hayden): Very heroic, but does have some sex and hints of rape.

      The Rigante Saga (David Gemmell): I am a huge Gemmell Fan. The Rigante series starts off so so, but the third book (Ravenheart) is simply amazing. Gemmell finally finds the moment he has been trying to write for 20 years. and you can feel his joy.

      The Dwarves Series (Marcus Heitz): Pretty solid quest fantasy, be very wary of the translations though, they switched on one of them and I hated it. The Badguys are actually very dark, but cartoonishly so IMO. The third book gets a lil nasty though.

      The Braided Path (Chris Wooding): Interesting characters and a neat setting, oriented towards people who love female characters. The bad guys are very, very dark though.

      • I love Butcher’s Dresden books – very entertaining – sadly I tried Codex Allera and it didn’t “click with me” but I’ve told myself many times to give it another go.

        Tales of the Otori – I’ve never heard of – I’ll definitely check it out.

        Dave Duncan – is on my TBR pile – I’ll move him up

        Brooks – I’ve read Shannara (well some of it).

        Jordan – I’ve also read (some of) and it was okay – a little too much “wall of information” for me.

        Name of the Wind – I agree with and and like. I’m a bit on the fence about WMF – have heard some negative things – will actually read it when #3 comes out.

        I tried Way of Kings – Hopelessness is what turned me off – I want to “want” to go to the fantasy world not take a few prozac before my visit.

        Thanks for saying Riyria is balanced – I wanted to have struggle and pain…but also have the sense that people can try to overcome their pasts and rise to the occassion.

        Elizabeth Hayden – another new one to me – will definitely add.

        Gemmell – how embarrassing is it that I’ve not read any of him – something that I MUST correct.

        Dwarves – been staying away from – only because I’m writing a book that involves dwarves and don’t want to taint the waters. When I get done with mine I will definitively read that – he’s a fellow Orbit author.

        Chris Wooding – I’ve seen around from time to time – though never tried his stuff. Will definitely pick it up – bad guys being dark is okay, as long as it’s not eveil for evil’s sake.

        Thanks for all the recommendations!

  3. grimkrieg says:

    Allera, like most of of Butcher’s stuff, gets much more readable as he builds his cast. Still, I’m a big fan of following instinct when reading, If it does not click its likely not for you.

    I felt the same way about Way of Kings until I powered through it, 1000+ pages is a long time to meditate on hopelessness.

    I remember Fred Saberhagen and Mercedes Lackey being a little more pastoral than gritty.

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