Why Winterbirth Was Gritty, Grimdark Or Whatever You Want To Call It (Part 1?)

There was a tiny wee brouhaha on the internets earlier this month (really tiny by the standards of most internet skirmishes), as I found out while listening to the latest episode of the jolly good Coode Street Podcast.  Mentioned therein was the latest round of disagreements over the merits or otherwise of so-called ‘gritty’ fantasy.

If you’re interested, you can sample the back-and-forth with an early salvo, then Joe Abercrombie’s defence of grit, then a mildly derailing discussion thread, then a considered response to Abercrombie’s response.  Etc.  There’s lots more out there.

To none of which I have much to add, except stuff that’s specific and personal to me. Since I wrote stuff – in the form of The Godless World trilogy, starting with Winterbirth – that’s undeniably gritty and/or grimdark (ugly neologism, that) in general terms, it won’t surprise you that I’ve got opinions about some of this stuff.

They’re very much personal opinions, though. They’re not part of an agenda, or a manifesto. They’re not a defence of any other writer or what they’ve written. They’re certainly not a defence of ‘gritty’ fantasy in general, because I have to confess I’ve read very, very little of the stuff. I only know (roughly) why Winterbirth is written the way it is, so that’s the only thing I can talk with authority about. (I realise it defeats the entire object of the internet if people start talking only about stuff they actually know, but there you are.)

One more thing this is not, by the way: an argument for the quality or otherwise of Winterbirth and the rest of the trilogy as books.  It’s only about why I wrote them in the tone and style I did, not whether I wrote the things well.

So why is Winterbirth so bloody bleak? There are quite a few reasons, so I fear this is going to run long …

It just came out that way. Sometimes books, especially I suspect first or early books in a writer’s career, are a bit less considered and controlled than some readers might assume. There’s less conscious choice and more going with the flow happening.

To go back to a basic level, when I started writing stories in my pre-teens, they were all speculative fiction of one sort or another. When I later started writing short stories to try to sell, they were all speculative fiction. When I decided to try to write and sell a novel, it was a speculative fiction novel. In none of those cases did I choose from a wide range of possible ideas or genres; I pretty much had no ideas for fiction that weren’t fantastical or science fictional.

I wrote Winterbirth because that was the novel idea that presented itself. I wrote it in the tone and style I did because that was the tone and style that presented itself when I started typing. I think there were reasons why that gritty tone was what came out, as we’ll get to in all their overlapping imprecision below, but saying that is not quite the same as saying I chose it.

Trying to write a real history of real people. Not literally trying to replicate the messiness or complexity of real world history, but trying to imitate it in broad strokes. Why? Because I had been reading – still do, in fact – a lot of historical non-fiction. Mountains of the stuff. And I had been deeply, and consciously, struck by the dissimilarities between most secondary world fantasy fiction and real world historical non-fiction. The radical simplification (and to some extent cleanliness) of psychologies, conflicts, societies, histories that seemed to be present in some epic fantasy, especially of the 70s – 80s, compared to the moral ambiguity, messiness and general intricacy of real history.

Simplification serves its purpose when one is trying to create the impression of myth or folktale. I wasn’t inclined to do that. I was after the feel of history, because, to be honest, I was at that time more interested in reading about history than about myth. And my impression of human history is very much that it’s more often than not about psychologically complex people doing complex things for complex reasons. And that there’s a lot of grit involved.

Fostering immersion by analaogy with the real. So I had an instinct to write in a style that borrowed from certain aspects of the real world’s history. (Only certain parts, clearly). But I did also have in mind a sort of minor experiment.

I had personally lost interest in epic fantasy fiction at some point, in large part because I no longer found it nearly as immersive or engaging as I had in my youth. One reason for that was that I found it ever less easy to care about or be interested in characters and plots that ceased to seem plausible to me in psychological, cultural or moral terms. As I got older I, like many of us, became more sensitive to the complexities and grey areas in our own world and lives, and I saw very little of that reflected in epic fantasy. Quest fantasies involving contests between objective good and objective evil just no longer did it for me.

I could see, in the 90s, that secondary world fantasy was moving in a direction that did interest me more, through the work of folks like Guy Gavriel Kay and George R R Martin. I started to suspect that fantasy written in a style that echoed in some way the intricacies and texture of real history had much, much more potential to be a fully immersive experience for readers like me (not all fantasy readers by any means), by virtue of precisely that echo. It was emphatically not about actually trying to replicate the full spectrum of historical experience, but about trying to remove barriers to reader immersion by imitating some aspects of it and thereby trying to sell the reader on the illusion that they were reading about real people with real problems.

So part of the reason I approached Winterbirth vaguely as if I was writing a real history of real people was a conscious experiment to find out if that did create a more engaging, immersive experience for some unknown subset of the reading audience.

The real past was bloody miserable.  Most secondary world fantasy, if it’s going to borrow from any real world history, is going to borrow from pre-modern history of some era.  Now if – as I was – you’re consciously trying to replicate some of the texture of that history, how you perceive it’s inevitably going to colour the tone of the fiction you write.  I fully acknowledge that the distant past is a veritable rainbow of experiences, with an abundance of light to offset the dark.  Nevertheless, I’m personally satisfied that by comparison with the present state of much of the world the past was in certain important respects a harsh, grim and often brutal place.

Inter-personal violence was, I’m reasonably convinced, more frequent and extreme.  The violence of authority (or what passed for authority) against its own subjects and against external bodies was more frequent and extreme.  The value set on individual human life was lower, or at least thought of significantly differently.  The circle of empathy was, in general, more restricted, with sameness being more narrowly and otherness more widely defined than is broadly the case today.  I could go on and on.

None of that means that I think fantasies which borrow from that past should replicate its bloody miserableness.  Not at all.  It merely means that I, as an individual writer, who was borrowing from the past and consciously trying to replicate some of its texture ended up with something pretty bleak and miserable in part because my entirely personal opinion is that any empathetic contemporary observer of the lives most of our ancestors lived would be downright apalled by the suffering that was tolerated and inflicted.

Reaction against past fantasies.  This isn’t a complaint about pre-grit epic fantasy in any way.  It’s an observation about the inherent and undeniable fluidity of trends, styles and approaches in any creative medium.  ‘Gritty’ fantasy is recognisable as such only in contrast to ‘non-gritty’ fantasy.  In some sense, it couldn’t exist if it hadn’t been preceded by stuff that created a style from which it could diverge.

As I said above, I frankly lost interest in epic fantasy for some time.  It was only the early stirrings of gritty that brought me back to the genre as a reader, let alone a writer.  GRRM is the obvious, and oft-cited, forefather of all that is grit, but for me personally, my first sense of it came earlier, with Guy Gavriel Kay.

Nobody could accuse Kay of writing the sort of grimy, violent fantasy that many of the tone’s critics would define it as, but nevertheless I saw in his books much that would come to influence the way I wrote Winterbirth.  A turning away from notions of unnuanced good and evil.  A gradual deepening and layering of the psychologies at work in the characters.  An explicit turning towards real world history as the model for fantastical tales.  Cautious steps, in other words, towards a sort of psuedo-realism in secondary world fantasy; an inclination to write history instead of myth.

Personally, I was absolutely writing in some sense in reaction to my memories of early commercial epic fantasies, which had lost my interest.  Inevitably, because they had lost my interest, I wasn’t going to replicate their tone and style.  I was going to do something slightly differently, and folks like Kay and Martin had planted some ideas about what that ‘different’ might look like.

I personally find, incidentally, the distinction between the imitation of myth and the imitation of history a much more interesting way to think about trends in secondary world fantasy writing over extended periods than focusing on comparative levels of violence, grit, swearing, dirt, bleakness etc. etc.  So much so I might even get around to doing a separate post on it some time.

And … this is all getting a bit out of hand.  I’ve still got two or three more, decidedly significant reasons for Winterbirth‘s bloody bleakness just off the top of my head, but enough’s enough for now.  I shall pop back up to the post title and stick a Part 1 in brackets and maybe … perhaps … get back to this and round it off in a day or two.

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