Relatively Grim

Everything is relative.  Humans do not measure in terms of absolutes.  Instead, we measure by comparison.  Probably my favorite example of this is found in the wonderful book Predictably Irrational by Daniel Ariely.  People were asked the following question:

You go to a store to buy a suit for $300.  When you arrive at the store, you discover the suit is actually priced $312 dollars.  Do you buy it here, or go to the store inconveniently across town that has it cheaper?

Most people buy the more expensive suit.  Then comes the next question:

You go to a store to buy a special pen for $5.  When you arrive at the store, you discover the pen is actually priced at $17.  Do you buy it here, or go to the store inconveniently across town that has it cheaper?

Most people decide the inconvenience is worth saving a few extra bucks.

But here’s the thing.  Both cases are entirely identical in terms of the amount of extra money being spent.  In either case, it’s a question of whether you want to spend $12 more for a little convenience or not.  Yet there is something innately distasteful about spending $17 dollars when we planned on spending $5 and only mildly annoying when we were planning on spending $300.

That’s how humans think, and it isn’t limited to money.

Having been a published author for about a decade now, I have seen the shift in cultural perceptions.  While shifts are natural, even expected, they have not been in my favor.  While I don’t mind the grimdarking of our culture because things change and that’s the way it works, I do admit that it’s put my own books in a strange place.  I’ve always struggled a bit to be accepted by an adult audience, but as we’ve moved toward a world where our definition of sophisticated content is found in books like A Song of Fire and Ice (or A Game of Thrones, as you non-hipsters like to call it) and TV shows like, well, A Game of Thrones, the stories I want to write are considered more and more fluff.

I’m not making excuses.  There are a lot of other factors at work, and no doubt, my lack of a series is one of those factors.  Another is that while I don’t consider myself a humor fantasy writer, I’m undeniably writing funny stuff nonetheless.  That means that for a lot of people my books are either too silly and not silly enough, and it can be confusing to a lot of potential readers.  But the grimdarking of our culture is also a big factor, and it’s the one I think I have the hardest time overcoming.

I can write sillier books.  I can write more serious books.  But the elements of sophistication as they stand at the moment are sex, violence, brutality, despicable characters, and generally unpleasant situations.  As I’ve said before, I can’t get into A Song of Fire and Ice for exactly the reasons everyone else seems to love it.  I find it gruesome and off-putting, and I could probably get around that if there were more dragons and wizards, but those things are noticeably spare intentionally.  Nothing wrong with that.  I’m all for variety in our media, and if someone finds satisfaction in stories about serial killers and drug dealers, good on them.  That’s their thing, and I find nothing wrong with people indulging those emotional needs in the media they consume.

Yet I have no interest in writing a rape scene.  I don’t want to write a fantasy novel where people randomly die in terrible ways to shock the reader.  And I like happy endings.  Not syrupy, everyone lives happily ever after happy endings.  But honest happy endings where the characters have learned from their experience and come out the other side, if not perfectly content, better people for the journey.  I want heroes I can look up to, and villains I can admire because they have sensible goals and are only a little bit overzealous in achieving those goals.  I want to explore what it means to be human, but not just the most extreme elements of humanity.  The quiet moments.  The times when the world isn’t exploding, but we’re still trying to determine who we are and how can we make this thing called life work.  And I want to do it while writing about space squids and moon-eating monster gods.

It’s easy to feel frustrated by this shift, and I know I’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning this change of late.  I still haven’t gotten over the grimdarking of Superman.  That’s still an open wound I will be carrying with me for a very, very long time.  But it’s not all negative.

I enjoyed the heck out of The Winter Soldier, and a big reason I did is just how apologetically old-fashioned it is in a lot of ways.  Captain America is an admirable hero who believes in fighting for what’s right.  The bad guys are certainly bad, but they also have a consistent logic behind their plans.  And The Falcon . . .

Holy heck, the Falcon was awesome.

I’ve also found encouragement in all-ages entertainment.  The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody & Sherman were both thoughtful, fun films that had a lot of interesting things to say while also being absurd fantasy romps.  Yet I’ve never intended to write YA fiction.  Rather, I’ve never sought to limit my audience to young adults.  I’m perfectly happy if young adults (or anyone of any age) reads my books, and I’ve grown increasingly fond of all-ages media because of its ability to tell sophisticated stories while avoiding the pitfalls of grimdark for grimdark’s sake.

Perhaps that’s the real lesson to learn from this.  While I started out in adult fantasy, perhaps the genre and I have become incompatible.  That’s not such a bad thing, though I don’t relish the idea of starting out in a new sub-genre.  Then again, I’ve always kind of been there, so maybe I’m second guessing myself for no other reason than human nature.

Just some stuff on my mind, Action Force.  Thanks for listening.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Charlie
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I love your books. I love happy endings. I love good guys who are good and don’t understand the modern conclusion that a “gray character is more interesting.”

    *takes off fan hat and puts on public relations professional hat*

    You are a humor fantasy writer. Not only that, you are one of the best humor fantasy writers I know of.

    I’m not sure if the next example will work but it’s about a time my professional PR skills helped a real live person with a real live problem. My friend “Greg” is a bigger guy and was having trouble dating. He went to dating sites with not-so-big guys and was rejected right and left. I said “Go to Bear sites” (google it). He didn’t want to identify as a bear; bears have big beards, and wear lots of flannel and those weird leather nazi hats. He wanted to find a slimmer guy who just didn’t realize yet how much he liked big guys. I said “Market to your demographic, go to sites where big is the baseline and no one can hold that against you.” He did, found a boyfriend, and is thrilled to be a part of a more accepting group of dudes even if he still can’t really think of himself as a “bear.”

    If you’re a humor writer, then you are the humor writer who loves squid tyrants and demon ducks. If you’re a regular ol’ sci-fi writer vanilla sci-fi writer you’re a

    I know the world of book publishing has changed. Time was an Alan Dean Foster could have his books with goofy covers and lots of humor sprinkled in them next to copies of Dune.

  2. Tara
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    I find it encouraging that The Winter Soldier has been almost unanimously lauded. It had humor, it had good characters doing good for the sake of good (and winning in the end!), and it wasn’t any less tense or interesting for those elements. And people loved it. Hopefully DC will sit up and take note (but I know better by now than to count on their doing that).

    Anyway, just know that there are a lot of us out there who wholly agree with your views on grimdarkness and the non-necessity thereof, and please just keep on writing fun books with multifaceted characters and hopeful, if not perfect, happy endings. There are still lots of people left who will love you for it. 🙂

  3. Annamal
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, this is definitely not a universal shift.
    Terry Pratchett for example writes in precisely that grey area of fantasy and humour and has managed to build up an unprecedented following over time (although the time in question was pretty extended).

    Mainstream comics seems to roller coaster between grim-darking and making fun of grim-darking (oh Gail Simone, how I adore you)

  4. Whitewater
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Never quite been able to explain why your books had such an appeal to me other than the old “I like them”…but I now have a direct quote to use the next time I’m asked what I like about them…

    “I want to explore what it means to be human, but not just the most extreme elements of humanity. The quiet moments. The times when the world isn’t exploding, but we’re still trying to determine who we are and how can we make this thing called life work. And I want to do it while writing about space squids and moon-eating monster gods.”

    That nails it…and thanks for writing it.

  5. JB Sanders Jr
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I think in your examples it’s a matter of degrees, the final cost of the suit is only 4% more than the expected price, while the pen comes in a 240% more. It’s like those people that have no problem tipping three dollars on a ten dollar tab, but scream like holy hell at tipping thirty dollars on a hundred dollar tab, even though the percentage is the same.

  6. VultureTX
    Posted May 5, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry does the pen have the same utility as the suit? not likely

    So when the questionnaire is the same as the Magician’s Choice, forcing their viewpoint upon you; do you agree with the result knowing it’s forced. Because in most cases you would not but that pen at all.

    /and of course I understand the math with percentage rate of difference, and linear; still does not alter I don’t like the questionaire.

One Trackback

  1. By Palm Sunday Linkdump | Cora Buhlert on April 12, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    […] A. Lee Martinez laments the triumph of grimdark and wonders how he fits into a genre where grimdark …. I certainly smypathize, though my own work is darker than A. Lee Martinez’, based on what I’ve read by him. Or rather, my work tends to oscillate between light and dark. […]

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