There recently has been a (revival of the?) discussion regarding the place and value of sex and violence in books in epic fantasy. The focus on a particular sub-sub-genre dubbed ‘grimdark’, authors, critics, reviewers, and others are voicing their opinion whether the images of sex, war, violence, rape, body parts being lopped off, etc. have a legitimate place. I will voice my own—in a paucity of words.
Regardless of the genre or sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of literature, sex and violence have always had a place in media—printed or otherwise—as indeed they are part of our lives. It may be glossed over or graphically exposed, but from the first books we have of the Greeks, to Shakespeare, to Conan, to the latest James Bond, the physical elements—by turns intimate and aggressive—exist on screen and page in varying quantities. What varies, however, is the intent behind these elements, and this makes all the difference.
I once received an invaluable piece of advice: when reviewing or critiquing a piece of writing, the most important thing to examine is the writer’s goals for their work. What kind of story were they trying to tell? What did they decide was the best method and structure to tell it? How did they characterize their thematic material? Did they have higher aims—a statement beyond the text, or are they just trying to earn a nickel? Were they cleaving to reality, or more interested in telling a ripping good story? In short, there are numerous paths authors can walk to manifest the idea they have in mind, and this must be taken into consideration when judging the social relevancy and meta-qualities of a published work.
Thus, when a book possesses a surfeit of sex and violence which bears little relation to other aspects of the story, it seems obvious the writer included the material as a ploy: earning money or getting published was their foremost goal. (The other choice is that they are sadistic, but I think this can be excluded.) I say this as the number of authors who use blood and lust to comment on humanity in intelligent fashion are few and far between. The overwhelming majority who use these elements, use them as eye-kicks to sell more books—which is no surprise given the economic model most are written within. In other words, ‘grimdark’ is by and large just a label for the sub-genre of fantasy which focuses on cheap sensationalism for commercial and storytelling interests.
As such, I don’t believe that grimdark is any more realist than the softer side of epic fantasy. The last time I checked, Medieval days are behind us and rape and murder are minority behavior in the West. I’m not downgrading these topics as unimportant, rather pointing out that for grimdark’s audience, blood and aggresive lust are not a normal part of everyday life, and imagining a world filled with these elements is just as escapist as Middle Earth, Earthsea, or any other so-called work of soft fantasy. Moreover, a cornerstone of a progressive society is the idea that it tries to present these exigencies as obstacles to be overcome, that is, rather than attempting to present them in fictional form as gratutitously and gloriously as possible.
On the contrary, what seems obvious to me is the existence of reading material with greater integrity. As limited as its sales may be in comparison to the latest NY Times bestseller, there are books and films, including fantasy (epic and otherwise), which dig at the human condition, examining or trying to answer its burning questions and provide solutions to its major issues. They challenge or attempt to improve upon aspects of society and individuals through relevant commentary, presentation of character, and premises which foreground the idea of evolutionary improvement. Given grimdark adds nothing to the ongoing discussion of cultural and social concerns save indirectly, its value is entertainment--at best.
In conclusion, a saturation of sex, violence, grimdark—however you want to identify ”cheap sensationalism” in media—are elements of entertainment that deserve the criticism they receive for their inability to raise cultural standards and weakness to utilize their media position to discuss issues pertinent to humanity. A rape scene merely for shock value has no place in society just as violence for violence’s sake is likewise self-defeating. So while I readily admit that the complete elimination of grimdark in favor of a market populated only with material vying for the Nobel seems an impossible utopia, it is at least our duty to continue censuring grimdark in the hope it is pushed to the margins as escapist entertainment, that is, rather than promoted as a sub-genre deserving of legitimacy. Simply put, let’s reward a writer with integrity and whose concerns lie in the human condition, and try to limit those with self-seeking goals channeled through the portrayal sex and violence. If history is any indicator, the cheap thrills of grimdark will be remembered as pulp in the future, after all.