Grim/dark = realistic? Where did this idea come from?

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Thread: Grim/dark = realistic? Where did this idea come from?

  1. #1

    Grim/dark = realistic? Where did this idea come from?

    I remember after watching The Shining, I was surprised by how much I hated it. Wasn't this supposed to be a highly acclaimed horror film? Yeah, the cinematography and acting was good, but the plot was random (i. e. why is this man in a fursuit here?), I didn't like any of the characters, and its nihilism and general flatness left a bad taste in my mouth. But what really surprised me was the explanation given by a fan of the film for why all of these problems (as I saw them) existed. The incoherent writing and lack of anyone or anything admirable/valuable to root for were, apparently, intentional, because that is what "real" life is like. "Real" life (this cheerful admirer told me) is grim, arbitrary, and often doesn't make sense (not those exact words, but that was the idea I think).

    Now I really, really want to know where this idea came from. I hear it espoused everywhere. It's almost an assumption in some circles. Why is this rape scene here? "Realism." Why is the MC such a jerk? "Realism." Blah, blah, blah.

    Fantasy seems to be one place where this comes up a lot, probably due to the popularity of Game of Thrones. The idea's like, if you have a knight in shining armor fighting a dragon, that's not "realistic," but if you have a knight in *rusty* armor fighting a *morally ambiguous* dragon (and there's a brown filter over everything), THEN it's "realistic." Massively confusing in the first place that fantasy writers would be obsessing over realism, but, more importantly, the movement points to something in the authors' worldview. Liz Bourke describes it well: "[Grimdark's] defining characteristic lies in a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action—in terms of personal moralityas either impossible or futile."

    And I think it's that, the nihilism, that really sets this particular movement towards the grim/dark/gritty (both in fantasy and in general) apart from previous works that are darker in tone. Lord of the Rings is quite dark at points, and there is a near-constant sense of impending doom, but it never portrayed the heroic actions of its protagonists as futile or wrong.

    And that is what makes grimdark's claim to realism so strange. The "real" world, they appear to be saying, is sad, directionless, and lacking in real heroes. But this, though treated as a fact apparent from life, is clearly a value judgement. Of course, all writers are going to be making value judgments all the time, but why, in the reigning cultural feeling, do the "grim" writers get a monopoly on defining what the world "really" is? Sure, most people like lighthearted superhero movies, but they are treated as "escapism," while Game of Thrones, The Shining, etc. are treated as a serious portrayals of the "real world."

    I, for one, find the baseline value judgement behind this type of writing to be obviously lacking. Why are splattered entrails "real" and happy babies not? Why is terror or despair "real" and beauty or heroism not? Take even some truly grim aspect of reality, like war, and you will find humor, flickers of light and beauty, and, yes, real heroes.

    Whew, I said a lot, but I really want to get a conversation started about this. Please disagree with me or it'll be no fun, haha!
    "So long is the way to the unknown, long is the way we have come. . ." ~ Turisas, Five Hundred and One

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  2. #2
    I'd counter by saying that 'escapism' films (and books?) only paint a picture of the world in one garish pallette. That's why i consider them unrealistic and can only look at the briefly before they hurt my eyes.

    Game of Thrones is the only work i've watched and read, that you mentioned so let's take that.

    It's painted with the same breadth of colours as real life. You've highlighted some of the darker tones, but there are many vivid ones there too. Look at the redemption arcs of Greyjoy and, my favourite, the Hound. They are beautiful (ignore the hamfisted conclusion by the series), they are brilliant. Without the dark outlines to their stories, their stories would just be caricatures.

    Superhero stuff particularly just appears to be an attempt to have all the thrills of a rollercoaster ride without the tortuous assent. Life is ups and downs, and its reasonable to want that in your literature/film.

    It is right that it should be so, man was built for joy and woe.

  3. #3
    It's really only annoying because they claim it to be more 'realistic.' Elric subverts established tropes and replaces it with an anti-hero but Moorcock never claimed that Elric is more 'real' than Aragorn. They are both real, they both reflect archetypes that embody themselves in the real world. Some people may feel more of a connection to a grim antihero but that is purely a matter of personal taste, and sometimes, though not always, emotional immaturity.
    Dead by Dawn!

  4. #4
    I have never heard anybody praise The Shining for realism particularly. Nor do I think it’s at all nihilistic. But anyway.

    The world is mostly cruel and harsh. That isn’t really an opinion or a value judgment, it’s more of a statistical fact. Millions of people die yearly and a huge percentage of them in ways that are unjust and preventable. And that’s just death. What about the other copious miseries? Try telling a molested child or a swindled old person or a war refugee or a homeless person that the world is overall a pleasant, kindhearted place. Hell, try telling the average American office worker - we all have shit to deal with.

    Do you really think there are more happy babies than neglected or starving or abandoned or sick or dead ones? I hope not, because historically at least there sure aren’t. Not even close. The default state of the average baby is not “happy”. So why misrepresent “what it is to be a baby” by painting babies as happy? What purpose does that serve if we are trying to be “realistic”?

    We ALL die eventually. Many of us die painfully or unpleasantly. What “dark” or “gritty” fiction does is try to explore these issues and provided it is handled well, then yes it’s pretty damn realistic.

    That doesn’t mean focusing on bad things is necessarily the key to achieving realism and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to write about that stuff. Books that celebrate good things can be as realistic as books that fixate on not so good things. The idea is to include a rich mixture of reality. Ultimately of course the world is how you perceive it. But the point is that a novel that doesn’t address the harsh unpleasantness and tragedy of the human condition in some meaningful way is not going to be realistic to anybody, at least nobody but the most privileged of people. I believe most of us if we are honest are not happy a decent chunk of the time. Most of us find happiness in short, fleeting moments between the struggle of life.

    I don’t know how you could argue that a story that reflects this struggle, this war, accurately and consistently is in any way nihilistic. Maybe it’s a religious thing, not sure. My stories are mostly about characters going through some kind of horrible episode and there’s often not a happy ending, but I consider both the stories and my worldview more generally to be anything but nihilistic or depressing.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  5. #5
    It's like romance being seen as fluff reading for fluff women who have nothing better to do. Anything to put the genre in its place alongside the little women, bless their cotton socks for attempting to read or write it, because it's not 'serious reading' right?

    Fiction gets stereotypical tags regardless of whether it's fact-based or not, unfortunately. There's always someone there who wants you to feel as though your reading/writing isn't as serious as theirs. It's the rubbish side to human nature. In all honestly, it's all just guided subjective interpretation, like what makes a classic a classic: those who officially design the framework for judging what makes the classic lineup influence most others, and most follow their template blindly. Of course it's a classic -- it's marketed on the shelf as such. Of course it's only women's romance, because only a woman is soft enough to want in her life, right? It's mushy stuff therefore only good for those little mushy women.

    I'm a core horror fan, but I also read thrillers, crime, suspense, romance, classics etc. I want realistic and gritty, but you can get that across all the genres. No one is less worthy than the other when it comes to hitting that reading spot. James Herbert's Rats was pure gore, but also gritty with showing the break down of society when it came to Domain, but Atonement (a classic) showed the fantastic darkness to human nature.

    I think they get the tags Light reading, dark reading for another reason, though. When going through publication, it's guided by tags, and novels have to slot into them in order to be sellable. So you get light romance v dark romance etc. But it also helps the reader. Some readers want romance, but they don't want gore, so they will look up light romance tags, which usually just means 'no gore,' etc. And publishers keep that in mind as well as authors. So it's a win-lose situation. Pandering to the stereotype tag helps but also curses you as the writer.
    Last edited by Aquilo; June 20th, 2019 at 02:38 PM.

  6. #6
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    I suppose it is just another way to appeal to readers / viewers, and their tastes, experiences, and so forth. People for whom that resonates will be more enaged with the work than they otherwise might be.


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  7. #7
    Where did it come from? Well, Cervantes is said to have put a substantial nail in the coffins of up-beat chivalry and old-fashioned romanticism centuries ago with his novel Don Quixote. Whether we can directly blame him for love at first sight being replaced by prenuptial agreements nowadays is doubtful, but the rot certainly goes way back. Personally I've found being quixotic to be an advantage as it provides opportunities that others miss.

    In my novel I did actually use the word "gallant" about my main character. Don't we all perceive ourselves to be gallant to some extent? I was once walking along when I found myself approaching a woman who was flailing at her head because a wasp had got entangled in her hair. With barely a thought I pulled out my wallet and used it to flick the insect out and we went on our ways with hardly a word exchanged despite the somewhat intimate nature of the act. Well, they do say that money can solve every problem although keeping it in one's wallet while doing so may be unusual. Hardly high on the "saving the damsel in distress" scale and it was an incredibly small dragon but every little helps. That's the reality of life just as much as the grim side.

    When I saw my angel for the very first time all those years ago I immediately felt that she was the person to share my life. We spent a couple of hours talking continuously in a pub that evening. The next morning she was thinking about whether she liked me or not but the persistent idea that she was going to marry me overwhelmed that internal debate. Of course, with my present day belief that future experiences can influence past decisions if allowed to, almost half a century now subsequently spent living happily together probably prompted our behaviour then. That first conversation must just have seemed to be a continuation of all the others yet to come. A romantic notion worthy of Don Quixote maybe, but methinks he gave in to the allegedly rational thinking of others far too easily. Life is what we make of it.

    As for the grim reality, despite all the optimism about turning global warming and environmental disaster around at the eleventh hour, the numbers just don't add up and the only viable future on this planet for mankind appears, certainly from the perspective of many fiction writers, to be a cataclysm that eliminates most of humanity and leaves the few remaining to valiantly try again. Maybe in this present age even Cervantes would have adopted a different attitude to novel writing.
    'Sharing an experience creates a reality.' Create a new reality today.
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  8. #8
    "Natural Born Killers" was a romance. Just sayin'...
    Her: I love my computer! All of my friends are in there!
    Me: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about my freezer...
    Her: What?
    Me: What?

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by ArrowInTheBowOfTheLord View Post
    I remember after watching The Shining, I was surprised by how much I hated it. Wasn't this supposed to be a highly acclaimed horror film? Yeah, the cinematography and acting was good, but the plot was random (i. e. why is this man in a fursuit here?), I didn't like any of the characters, and its nihilism and general flatness left a bad taste in my mouth. But what really surprised me was the explanation given by a fan of the film for why all of these problems (as I saw them) existed. The incoherent writing and lack of anyone or anything admirable/valuable to root for were, apparently, intentional, because that is what "real" life is like. "Real" life (this cheerful admirer told me) is grim, arbitrary, and often doesn't make sense (not those exact words, but that was the idea I think).
    Maybe the things you complain about with the movie are why Stephen King didn't like it? If you've ever read The Shining you'll know that none of the faults you attribute to the movie exist in the book. All of Stanley Kubrick's movies have that "flatness" you noted in The Shining, that sense of disconnectedness is one of his trademarks. In King's book the characters are well drawn and three dimensional, and the back-story of the Overlook Hotel is quite complete so you understand the visions the characters see. The movie is a far different experience from the book.

    I don't view the movie as particularly "realistic", or gritty, just mediocre. None of what you complain about are faults of the writing, but, instead, faults of the movie director's vision and execution of the story.
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    The world is mostly cruel and harsh. That isn’t really an opinion or a value judgment, it’s more of a statistical fact. Millions of people die yearly and a huge percentage of them in ways that are unjust and preventable. And that’s just death. What about the other copious miseries? Try telling a molested child or a swindled old person or a war refugee or a homeless person that the world is overall a pleasant, kindhearted place. Hell, try telling the average American office worker - we all have shit to deal with.
    My point is not that the world is overall pleasant. My point mostly swings on what separates the current "darker and grittier" movement from just dark fiction in general, which is the tendency (need?) to present right action or moments of hope as invalidated by the harshness of the world. I also see an invalidation of the meaning of the events of life. But that, I don't think, actually does represent the "real world." In the real world, pain and joy walk surprisingly close in step. If you talk to any of those people you mentioned--the homeless, the impoverished, the wronged--you will not find a grim monochrome of hopelessness. People respond to pain and struggle in many ways. My mom was molested as a child. She also grew up to be, quite literally, the most joyful person I have ever met. The value judgement comes in when someone looks at something like that and says the pain is "real," but the joy despite the pain is only naive idealism.

    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    We ALL die eventually. Many of us die painfully or unpleasantly. What “dark” or “gritty” fiction does is try to explore these issues and provided it is handled well, then yes it’s pretty damn realistic.
    Well, yes, death is inevitable and unpleasant, but why does "dark" or "gritty" fiction want to present the unpleasantness of death as its only aspect? True accounts of Christian martyrs always shock me into re-thinking death. Whether or not you agree with their beliefs, when a man who is literally being roasted alive cheerfully quips, "I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!" it's tough to agree with "gritty" fiction's dismissal of heroic or noble death. The image of a knight charging into battle with a hymn on his lips is not an idealistic fantasy, it's an image from reality.

    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    I believe most of us if we are honest are not happy a decent chunk of the time. Most of us find happiness in short, fleeting moments between the struggle of life.
    I guess this is where some of the subjectivity comes in. I'm happy more than a decent chunk of the time, but that's not even the basis of my argument. You can count your blessings or your struggles, but the real question is whether any of it actually matters.

    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    I don’t know how you could argue that a story that reflects this struggle, this war, accurately and consistently is in any way nihilistic. Maybe it’s a religious thing, not sure. My stories are mostly about characters going through some kind of horrible episode and there’s often not a happy ending, but I consider both the stories and my worldview more generally to be anything but nihilistic or depressing.
    Yes, a story that is grim and contains horrible things happening is not necessarily nihilistic; that is true. One of my favorite albums is literally called Holy Despair, but I would not call it nihilistic because the general thrust of the album is that even despair has significance and can lead you to truth. But if accurately reflecting the struggle translates as presenting the struggle as in vain, then I would call that nihilistic. You can show the value and purpose of the struggle even without a happy ending (A Cry of Stone did this well).
    "So long is the way to the unknown, long is the way we have come. . ." ~ Turisas, Five Hundred and One

    "[An artist is] an idiot babbling through town. . .crying, 'Dreams, dreams for sale! Two for a kopek, two for a song; if you won't buy them, just take them for free!'" ~ Michael O' Brien,
    Sophia House

    Christ is risen from the dead,
    trampling on Death by death,
    And on those in the tombs,
    lavishing light.



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