Thursday, April 11, 2013
Grimdark and Violence in Fantasy
What, you ask, is grimdark?
It's term, apparently originating from the description of a tabletop RPG, Warhammer 40K, set in a future which is "grim" and "dark," and in which everything is war.* I read a very interesting article discussing grimdark in fantasy here, but I wanted to go into a bit myself, because of my ambivalence about it.
As I understand it, grimdark has become a term for dark fantasy that takes violence to a really gruesome level. One of the articles I read about it (might be the one above, I'm not sure) talked about how the genre of horror basically died in the 90s, and was reborn as "dark fantasy." So what has become common, apparently, is for fantasy novels to show ever-more graphic depictions of violence, especially sexual assault and torture. This starts, more or less, with George R. R. Martin's series that I've only experienced as the TV show Game of Thrones (love it, am hooked, often can't take the violence). But from what I read, GRRM is a beginner compared to some of the grimdark stuff that's come out since. And it has also, apparently, become the expectation that fantasy authors write this sort of violence in their novels, and each one seeks to top the one before.
I actually don't know about this first hand, I'm just summarizing the articles I read.
I initially started reading about the grimdark trend because I was worried The City Darkens might be grimdark, and I'd just read about it briefly in an article on TVtropes.org which made it sound like it was generally viewed as a bad thing. However, despite the fact that these articles were critical of it, the authors of these articles were reacting to the trend and its popularity. Apparently, a lot of people like grimdark fiction.
As an aside, The City Darkens isn't grimdark. Not by a longshot, from what I can tell. Yes, there's violence in it. Just not nearly that level of violence. To quote the same article I linked above, "Ringil [in Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains] remembers being gang-raped at a boys’ private school, where all the kids take turns gang-raping each other as part of being hazed." This sort of thing is never going to happen in my books. There's a couple of reasons for that, which I'll get into.
1) I don't read novels with this level of violence, and if a novel contains a sexual assault, it had better be essential to the plot. Even Mélusine, which I reviewed here, and gave five stars to on Goodreads, has a sexual assault scene early on that I could have happily done without. When I don't like reading something, the likelihood of my writing it is very, very low. I have a similar thing with harming animals in fiction. I don't like it as a plot device. I think it's manipulative, because as they've pointed out (here and even better, here) on TVtropes, people get way more upset about an animal or child getting hurt or killed than adult humans. I also cannot stand it if the harming of an animal is in any way supposed to be funny or entertaining. Animals are not here to amuse us with their suffering, folks. The world is hard enough on them already without that.
2) I have a really hard time writing violence of any kind, because ever since I became a mom, all my emotional armor has become swiss cheese. I kid you not. I was never a fan of violence, you understand. I totally freaked my students out the first year I taught American history when I had to ask one of them to take over reading a letter by Michele de Cuneo because I burst into tears (it, too, involves sexual assault). But having my son just destroyed any level of desensitization I formerly built up. I cannot watch suffering dispassionately, and when I write it... yeesh. It's like I'm pulling out my own nails. Which doesn't mean I won't do it. As I mentioned, The City Darkens has violence, and I believe it's important to convey the consequences of things like war, so the violence is, in my opinion at least, fairly realistic. The big difference is, I don't slather on the details.
In fact, I can't imagine writing a story without violence. This is where my ambivalence comes in. I've tried, folks. Remember the plot-bunnies I mentioned about an Edwardian romance? I thought writing romance might be a good idea for me, so I could avoid violence. Well, it doesn't work for me. I love reading Edwardian romance, but when it comes to writing, it seems I cannot escape violence. In Broken Ones, there's domestic violence. In my Veronica series, there are murders and arson and plane crashes and other violent situations. And in The City Darkens there's still more violence.
I like to say I write to preserve my sanity, and that is true. I do go through seasons where I don't write, and that's okay, but when I'm in a writing phase, not writing very quickly makes me antsy, irritable... it makes PMS and pregnancy hormones look like a joke, people. While I often enjoy writing most when it's acting as an escape for me, it's also a form of therapy, in reality. There's a part of Myadar's Snare that is incredibly painful for me to write and to reread. Whenever I revise it, I just hate that part. It's because I gave myself this challenge, to write one of my greatest fears. So rereading it means going through that fear again. Ultimately, I hope it makes the story more authentic, but man. So unfun.
It brings to mind two (very different) authors. Nalo Hopkinson used to participate on a feminist sci fi and fantasy listserv I belonged to for a while. We read Brown Girl in the Ring for a book of the month. There's a scene where a character gets flayed alive, and someone on the listserv talked about how awful it was to read. Nalo Hopskinson responded that it also had been incredibly hard to write, which surprised the woman who had posted originally. She said she had never thought about whether a scene had been hard for an author to write. That really stuck with me, because I was already writing back then, but I hadn't really ever written anything that was that hard for me. In fact, I'd say that the first time I truly did that was in Myadar's Snare. It happens again later in The City Darkens, too. But up until then, I did write scenes that were hard scenes, but they were almost always fueled by anger, not tapping into fear or pain so much. Certainly not recent, raw pain or the way I imagine I would feel if something I am currently very afraid of would come to pass. I'd be more likely to draw on old fears or old pain, if that makes sense.
The other author is Stephen King. I'm not sure where I read this; probably Danse Macabre because I'm pretty sure it predated On Writing. He said he didn't really have a choice about what he wrote. He used a metaphor, which I'll paraphrase, but just be aware I'm probably getting it wrong... He said writing is like a strainer in your mind. All this muck passes through it, and some stuff says in it, and that's what you write about. He said that if he had a choice, he'd write like Amy Tan.
So violence is part of the muck in my strainer, I guess. And as such, I can't out-and-out condemn grimdark, because it's just taking that same muck to a much more extreme level, after all. I think, and this was pointed out in some of the articles that I read, that the real problem with grimdark is that it's violence for violence's sake a lot of the time, and that just seems like someone needs a better editor. Violence in novels and any other fiction medium really needs to have a purpose. It's like my issues with animal harm in fiction. That can really be applied more broadly to all violence. Violence can be used in a really cheaply manipulative way, and if that's why it's there, it's no bueno. Violence should exist in stories only when its absence would make a story impossible to tell.
How about you, do you have "muck" in your "strainer" that you have ambivalent feelings about? Have you pushed yourself to write something that is unpleasant for you to reread?
How do you feel about violence in fiction?
*The hashtag #grimdark apparently has some sort of My Little Pony connection I find... disturbing.