Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Grit, as Writ

I’ve been thinking for a while about grit in the SF genre, especially in fantasy. You can’t go more than a few reviews or browse more than a few book covers in a store without the use of “grit” somewhere. What is grit, and what’s the appeal?

LOOK! Boys wanted to sell GRIT!

What is Grit?

I’m going to pull out relevant morsels of a dictionary definition, just so you know what I’m referring to. From Merriam-Webster online:

grit noun. 1 a: sand, gravel b: a hard sharp granule (as of sand); also : material (as many abrasives) composed of such granules… 4: firmness of mind or spirit : unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.

When I think of grit in terms of fantasy, I think of it as an analogue to reality. Grit is the stuff that sticks in your teeth if you eat the sandy ice cream cone, or the dirt that chafes in your underwear if you’re at the beach or camping. It pulls me back from daydreaming to the real world, where I could easily do without having sand in my mouth or against delicate skin. It’s sometimes painful, but important. These are the things that pull us back into our physical bodies, our own visceral natures, and draw our attention to some of our more basic concerns (“Gee, I should rethink eating food I drop on the ground,” or “Man, next time I sit in a sandbox, I’m not wearing short-shorts,” or perhaps in the world of fantasy, “Golly, next time I’m fighting I’ll do my best not to get skewered.”).

It’s also stick-to-it-iveness, determination, bravery, persistence, and all of that strength of character stuff. Usually, I don’t explicitly think of this part when people describe literature as “gritty,” simply because good characters are unlikely to be wishy-washy and indecisive. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a plot, and fantasies would shift towards the realm of everyman introspective capital-L literature like Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (well-written, but boring). However, it’s a part of it as well, because volition is not separate from one’s own body no matter how much we like to categorize it as such. You could, for example, decide to tolerate a pebble in your shoe because you have more important things to worry about, such as the encroaching barbarian hordes or a rampaging dragon that spits venom. But you’d still feel that stupid pebble the whole while you were swinging your ginormous broadsword, unless you willed yourself to ignore it.

Grit vs. A Sense of Wonder

The grit has been around a long while, present in many subgenres of fantasy over time, though sword and sorcery and dark fantasy pop out the most. However, much fantasy stemming from J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings books doesn’t really fit into the “gritty” category. Instead, you get lulling prose that glorifies its subjects, and an all-knowing paternal tone. For more on the pastoral, comforting tones of rural bourgeosie in fantasy Michael Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” is a good read on the subject. I happen to agree with Moorcock in a general fashion, and tone of many Tolkeinesque fantasy novels grates on me.

While it constructs a sense of wonder for the reader (at times), it is also unrealistic escapism that creates a screen of protection for the reader. For example, did Gandalf ever get blisters on his hiney from all that riding? I don’t think so, but you’d be right to say I don’t really want to hear about Gandalf’s wrinkly, blistered posterior. Authors sieve out the grit and reality, and presents the noble, the heroic, and the fantastical. This is an authorial choice of subject matter and tone, and one that’s subject to various literary paradigms.

My concern here is whether a sense of wonder exists separate from reality. Does grit shock readers out of that fantastical mode? The possibility depends on your definition of wonder and your personal criteria for feeling it. I don’t feel grit and wonder exist in opposition, though they have been used as such, and sometimes to good effect. The choice is how to balance the two, and when to pull one into the fore over the other. Mary Gentle created contrast between moments of wonder and reality in Ash: A Secret History, and George R. R. Martin balances grit and the fantastic in his worlds, as James from Speculative Horizons points out.

People want to read about the reality in the fantastic, and these things can co-exist happily. But, lately it seems that many readers seek out this grit, such that more authors are choosing to make things more “real.”

Why Grit, and Why Now?

I have two ideas on why grit is so en vogue. Firstly, grit is reactive to the Epic Pooh modes of fantasy writing, and secondly, grit comes hand in hand with other societal media changes, like reality TV. These are two major changes, and the reasons are probably anyone’s guess. Keep in mind also that I’m certainly not saying “for sure” but I am speculating.

The Epic Pooh idea is somewhat polarizing, and you can imagine people wanting to change things up as a reaction to it. But Michael Moorcock and his Epic Pooh probably aren’t the only reason for change: people like variety, and different things. Expectations of speculative fiction in general have changed since the forties, both in audience and consumption. Paradigm changes play into this, and thus, writing changes. There’s always a next New Big Thing and at the moment it happens to be grit and shades of grey, which is a big change from the fantastical moral certainty evident in many past high fantasy books.

Grit also coincides with the desire for heightened immediacy and portrayals of reality found in media–documentaries and reality TV have been gaining a lot of popularity. People want to engage in a reality of one construction or another (people know reality TV is heavily edited and can be scripted, but treat it as “real” regardless), and fantasy is another version of reality. Escapism is a dirty word, and people want something that’s real: hard-hitting and visceral–grit figures well with that. Other shifts, like point of view changes from third person past tense to first person present tense are more common, as well as more contemporary and urban settings. These serve to provide familiarity, immediacy, and a way for readers to identify more strongly with characters. Again, this is something that also happens in reality TV and media of its ilk.

It’s an interesting correlation, no? I think there are broader societal changes at work that influence the desire for grit and impact. It’s funny how earlier fantasy works were derided for these things, and put to the side in favour of dream-like epic tales of bravery and valour. These ideas have been in the process of being torn apart and put together in new ways for decades. Which is why I find it so amusing that everyone seems to want to make something new out of fantasy and science fiction these days: we already have.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know.


8 Comments so far
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You basically covered most on the topic and well saying anything will mean copying what you said and saying it poorly. However I do link the grit with action and adrenaline. The high fantasy, Tolkeinesque, literature provides a more morally clear tension. Good must prevail over evil and there are of course glorious battles and teams are assembled.

The grit comes mostly within the Urban Fantasy genre and presents characters and stories that are morrally unclear, soaked in shades of grey as you have said yourself. Since in reality humans are not entirely good or evil, readers can relate to the shades of grey better and that is what they need.

Of course this is just a trend in literature and may pass soon. I certainly hope not as I like it. The action scenes and darker tones make it more exciting for me, more daring.

Comment by Harry~DayDream

I also enjoy parts of it, especially the shades of grey aspect of things. Never been a fan of the whole evil overlord vs. righteous hero thing that seems to pop up everywhere. Actually, if you ever happen upon a book called Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villains_by_Necessity) it’s a great take on the good/evil thing, but it is out of print. Wikipedia has a decent plot summary.

Personally, I’m hoping that the good points of the whole grit thing stick around in whichever trend pops up next… But I do miss some of the more sumptuous descriptive books that came out before the whole grit thing started up!


Comment by admin

hullu sara *waves*

you tackled a heavy topic here. really profound article, i enjoyed it immensely! First I wanted to point out that the societal media changes probably reflect wider societal changes, but you mentioned that at the end so I can’t chide you on that matter :). Great insight. I have to read Moorcock’s article and gather my thoughts on what might have caused the changes (your guesses at this time are just good as mine) and then I’ll get back to you in a gritty…I mean epic, way.

By the way; I’ve read another Moorcock’s article on the excellence of Marvyn Peake, it’s wonderful, you should read it. here is the link: http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/peake/full

have fun,

Comment by uroš

you’ve been unintentionally rick-rolled *sigh*

ps. i don’t have to mention that i feel embarrased as hell…I won’t even try to explain myself.

Comment by uroš

No worries, it’s been changed–though I didn’t get a Rick-roll, I got something entirely different! *rofl*

Thanks for pointing out the Peake article, he’s someone I haven’t ever read–back to ye olde pile o’ shame I suppose!


Comment by admin

tnx for the quick intervention – we wouldn’t want to corrupt unintentional passers-by now, would we?

Yeah, haven’t tried out Peake myself…pile o’ shame it is.

Comment by uroš

I’ve found the time and read the Epic Pooh essay by Moorcock and while I agree with him to some extent I believe him to be a bit too preachy for my tastes; as well as too wordy (he could have made his point using far less words).

One more thing, if his theory holds (about lewis, tolkien and all the rest of the “epic pooh”) then the current appeal of grit represents “an optimistic sing of our intellectual increase…? I mean, we are no more disillusioned, we don’t to “only” escape reality, but be remainded of it as well? What would Moorcock say of rising popularity of writers such as Richard Morgan?

“To pretend that this addictive cabbage is anything more than the worst sort of pulp historical romance or western is, however, a depressing sign of our intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards.”

For the reasons behind the change at the demand level – deriding tolkienesque prose and corrupt romanticizm, and praising gritty (bordering on vulgar) fantasy…I honestly don’t know? Maybe the core audience of typical epic fantasy has grown and want something different. Maybe the western world has become so content and comfortable that it now seeks something more down to earth? I don’t really think so…but it’s still a damned good question, I certainly want answered.

Comment by uroš

The Epic Pooh article is something I mention just because it’s evidence of a backlash against one particular style in the fantasy genre. Personally I don’t agree with much other than Moorcock’s criticism of the style (though it is an amusing read nonetheless).

I think most people could make their points with less words harmed in the process, but this is another rant entirely. 😉

It probably never will get answered, but it’s still interesting to think about. I’m really curious to see if there will be a backlash against the so-called grit (as there already has been to an extent in blog-land, though it hasn’t moved out of vogue yet) and how it will figure into future writing styles.


Comment by admin

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