Sunday 18 January 2009

What makes a novel gritty and dark?

I ask this question, because some of the comments on the Brent Weeks thread on SFFworld got me thinking.

More than once I've seen The Way of Shadows described as being a 'dark' and 'gritty' book. Personally, I didn't think it was either. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, more a comment based on my own experience. Ok, the gritty bit I can understand. There are some violent moments and plenty of blood gets spilled. To my mind, gritty is more than that. But I guess I can just about see where the gritty tag comes from. 

But dark? I don't get that at all. Some readers have said that, basically, Weeks' debut novel is dark because it's about assassins and relationships that get screwed as a result. I disagree. Similar events happen in The Lies of Locke Lamora (people die - brutally - and budding relationships are cut short), but I don't think anyone thinks of that as a dark novel. Likewise, the Jason Bourne trilogy of films are about an assassin, and plenty of people suffer, get hurt or even killed. But they're not 'dark' films. 

So, what am I driving at here? Well, I feel that whether a book is 'dark' or 'gritty' or 'romantic' or whatever, is not so much to do with the events in the book, but more about how the author portrays them and handles them. For example, you can write a sex scene in different ways. You could focus on the physical side - the sweat, the rhythm, whatever - or you could write it from an emotional point of view - the elation, the passion, and so on. Same act, two very different ways of presenting it. 

My favourite George R.R Martin short story is The Pear-shaped Man. ***Before I continue, I ought to warn there is a very minor spoiler coming up*** Apart from being a fantastic horror story, there's one scene that really, really worked for me - the scene where the protagonist finds a 'cheese doozy' (some sort of potato chip - for UK readers, I think the equivalent is a cheesy wotsit) in her underwear drawer. Now, there's nothing scary about a potato chip, right?

Well, it depends how you depict it. Martin manages to actually make it feel as if the cheese doozy is alive, and somehow threatening. Not just fantastic writing, but a great example of how the fear and tension is generated by the author's handling of the scene, not the actual event itself. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the fact you might have an assassin killing loads of people in your novel doesn't necessarily make your novel dark or gritty - it's more in the way the events are handled and portrayed, rather than the events themselves. 

Well, I think so anyway. It's the only way I can explain why I didn't find Weeks' book dark or gritty. I hope that makes some sort of sense, apologies if it's a bit of a ramble. I had trouble sleeping so I thought I'd get up and pound out my feelings on the matter. I think it worked, because I feel tired now. :)

Feel free to voice your own opinions! I'm simply giving my personal take on the issue, I'm not for one minute claiming to be correct (I'm sure there are times when the opposite of what I've said might be true). 

In case anyone is wondering - yes, I know I've talked a lot about Brent Weeks recently. I promise not to mention him again for a while. :)

Right, bed...


Mark Newton said...

Interesting debate. I often wonder if the question hints at: does dark and gritty actually make a book for mature readers? I don't think it does make a book for adults, and I think it's a mistake to assume they're for grow-ups just because something is dark and gritty.

Sex and violence are frequent discussions in schools these days, whether the public likes it or not.

Personally speaking, I always think a "mature" book is how it handles themes, and the depth of discussion available. Dare I say the intellectual rigour? Because books for kids, such as His Dark Materials trilogy, can still be extremely mature and for adults under those points.

If this is straying off the initial debate, I apologise!

Mimouille said...

I haven't read Brent Weeks...but there are indeed few authors who according to me qualify as dark and gritty. In my opinion, GRRM's ice and fire books qualify, as well as Bakker's Prince of Nothing books. I usually find books to be really dark when they show the true face of human beings, without censoring anything in the name of some kind of divine justice where the good guys a have to win...In the books I mentionned, there is no limit to "evil" or perversion, and they are depicted in a very convincing manner...

Neth said...

Gritty is a buzz word these days - especially for blog reviewers. Too many people attach it to anything they enjoy.

I think that it is mostly an attempt at seperating what is perceived to be more mature fantasy from the YA and YA-friendly brand of fantasy that was more prevelent in the 80s and 90s. I also think it's rather misguided and reinforces the too common perception that YA=bad for for adults.

In short - I dread seeing the word 'gritty' as a description of SFF writing. It has become mostly meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review and comments. I've used dark and gritty in the past talking books (though I'm not a blogger).

For me, I thought gritty is about subjects that get between your toes, make you grind your teeth, or simply images/ideas/subjects that 'stick' - in other words, subject matter that is potentially offensive to some, taboo to others e.g. Week's portrayal of Cannibalism. As well as exciting ideas taht could get under your skin, leave a mark.

All the above - but probably moreso unpredictable storytelling.

At least, this has always been this reader's impression.

Mmm, making me think about being more literal about describing things I've read. One to banter about over tea break ...

Mimouille said...

Oh, and by the way, I can't remember which blogger wrote an article detailing a list of terms or expressions he abhorred in fantasy reviews such as "best debut novel ever" or "gritty". And I agree that "gritty" is used all the time and thus losing its meaning. It's supposed to mean "of textures that are rough to the touch or substances consisting of relatively large particles" usually people mean that there is a realistic rendering of the European middle ages, because characters are rough around the edges and dirty and violent and so on...well its fantasy, so if it's not gritty, it's like Stephanie Meyer and its just Sparkly...