I'm in this eternal conflict when I write fantasy. On the one hand I enjoy reading the gritty stuff. I can honestly say the George RR Martin's Game of Thrones got me back into reading fantasy in a big way and was one of the few 'must keep reading one more chapter' books of the last few years for me. Same goes for Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series. But when I sit down to write, intent on creating another dark fantasy masterpeice, choc full of incest, regicide, sodomy, bestiality, necrophillia, abuse of aubergines, melting elven ears in blasts of deadly fire... I...I...just can't do it.
Why? I love reading the stuff. I've followed Martin's series through...I've got Joe Abercrombie lined up on my kindle (Torturer! Yaay!)... I just can't write it. There's a deep down sense that at present my main readership (almost enough to have a football game with... well, a 5 a side one) are my chums and family. My wife's aunt (vicar), my father-in-law ("he wrote what about the dwarf toasting goblin babies on a spit...and he married my daughter...") and, undoubtedly in time, my kids ("Dad, why are the brother and sister playing ponyrides in the abandoned tower?" "Errmm, ask George RR Martin, I stole it from him").
But that's not the only reason. I think that I simply won't enjoy writing it. Sustaining such a tone over a whole novel would be exhausting... it would be dispiriting. I dredge through enough misery in my day job, watch enough pain and sorrow on the telly. Why would I want to create more, even if it makes fantasy that bit more appealing to the mass-market?
Because when I write the stories I want to like the characters. Some may be painted in shades of grey, some may be tortured souls, but they will all find some kind of purpose and redemption. They'll all argue and fight, and laugh, and cry and get pissed off. But ultimately they'll be fun to write and those who read my book (almost up to two football games now... and a tournament full for my short stories...) will end it with a sense of happiness rather than a wince at the brutality of the prose they've just read.
Grittiness in fantasy isn't a new phenomenon: Elric (begun in the 60s) was an anti-hero in every sense, betraying his people and knocking of his mates at a rate of one per page with his soul-sucking sword (and didn't every D&D player want one of those... Blackrazor anyone?); Tommy Covenant the Leper Who Didn't Believe in Anything but Similes was not likeable in any way, not least when he began the trilogy with an unforgivable act. But Martin (and perhaps Jordan) paved the way for a real shift to grittiness and realism which opposed the often droney high fantasy of Tolkein and Brooks. But there is a middle ground, I'm certain. I think of the work of Fritz Lieber, with the humour of the Grey Mouser, or of Jack Vance and the superb Cugel. I think of the enjoyment of Dragonlance by Hickman/Weis or the energy of Patrick Rothfuss or the characterisation of Robin Hobb's Farseer. They strike a readable middle-ground- feel good fantasy without being too soft or having a ten page verse about Elven history.
And hopefully a smile on my face, even if the kids can't read it quite yet...