Groping the Elephant by Mark Lawrence

Last Updated on May 11, 2023

I’m terrible at giving writing advice. Partly it’s because my approach has essentially no structure and “Just do it.” might serve as a motivational sound bite but it’s not a great deal of help for someone struggling at a complex task. But my subpar advice giving isn’t entirely down to the inscrutable nature of my own approach. It’s also because I recognise that we’re all different. This wasn’t an instinctive understanding. I was always rather shocked to find that there were people who actively disliked the things I like most. But sufficient repetition did eventually get the message through the thickness of my skull. Writers are so varied in their approach that to offer them specific, prescriptive advice has always seemed foolish to me.

This has been a long walk to say that readers are also that varied, and what works for one will often not work for the next. And finally we reach my actual topic: grimdark. What else would Mark Lawrence write about for Grimdark Magazine?

emperor of thornsI last wrote a book I consider to be grimdark more than 10 years ago (Emperor of Thorns) but to many I will always be grimdark-author-Mark-Lawrence. That’s less testimony to the sticking (staining?) power of grimdark than it is to readers’ desire to put authors on one shelf and have them stay there. I think the same thing would have happened if I had opened with a romance or a comedy. It’s convenient to both publishers and readers if authors pick a lane and stay in it. It’s inconvenient only to me – I get bored.

But I digress. Grimdark! A word that has launched a thousand ships onto the stormy waters of defining a new subgenre. I’m not here to define it though I have taken shots at that in the past (see the end of this article for perhaps my most successful). I’m simply here to describe one of its features like one of the blind men describing the elephant by touch in the parable first seen in a Buddhist text ~2,500 years ago.

First let me offer you the thoughts of some of the others who have run their hands over this particular portion of the beast. Grimdark is, they say, relentless grim and dark (it’s all in the name), nihilistic and without even a glimmer of hope. Everything is worthless, there’s no point, why bother. And why, they say, would I want to read something like that? There is, they say, enough pain and sorrow in the world. Anyone who, like them, wishes to cheer themselves up should, they say, turn to some cosy fantasy, some light spirited comedy, some tale of hearts and flower filled meadows.

This is a perfectly valid response. We are, as I have led with, all different. I have known people with severe depression who self-medicate with an hour of stand-up comedians mainlined into their arteries via the medium of Youtube. It has seemed helpful to them.

When I’m having a bad day I seek distraction and I’m not really fussy about the form, it could be comedy, but equally well it could be a re-run of Aliens. “They come at night … mostly.” But I’m definitely not going to be seeking out anything particularly sad. Schindler’s List is right out!

And this brings me to the greatest surprise of my writing career after the fact that I have a writing career. I have received many – we’re talking dozens now – of messages from readers of The Broken Empire trilogy that credit the books with helping them out of dark places in their lives. Out of. Not into.

 I have had emails from a young man in a non-voluntary camp for survivors of recent suicide attempts. I’ve had messages from people suffering the worst kinds of depression. From people struggling with addiction of many kinds. Messages from people of different ages, sexes, and walks of life, all saying that following Jorg through his various rampages helped them deal with the shit that the real world was dumping on them.

Colour me surprised. Somehow the allegedly hopeless story of a violent, and in lots of ways despicable, young man was a lifeline to not just one or two individuals, but many. And as with all these things, I have to assume that what shows in my inbox is the tip of the iceberg.

These lines, more than 10 years old now, are from a young man who eventually did take his own life, but not for more than 5 years after this incident:

“I saw how Jorg had triumphed against all odds and I was inspired. Not to be a killer, but to not give up. This helped me through treatment.” 

So, my message for all those people who take time out of their busy schedules to make posts letting everyone know how terrible grimdark is, is not an attempt to change their particular reading tastes – just a reminder to them, were they to be reading this,  of quite how different we all are. They might, in their minds, pattern readers of grimdark into some caricature, people delighting in the misery of others or some equally ungenerous interpretation. I’d like to call, as a sometime writer of grimdark, for a little more kindness, cosiness if you will, and understanding that the value others find in these works is not something that you should trivialise and paint as shallow or mean-spirited. It’s just another example of the wonderful diversity of our kind.

And, to conclude, as promised here’s that definition of grimdark that seemed to find favour among those who call it their preferred subgenre:

Grimdark is often called hopeless, but in doing so people miss that it isn’t apathetic – it is (for me) characterised by defiance in the absence of hope.

Grimdark is often called nihilistic, but this misses the idea that you can accept a nihilistic truth and still choose to die for a principle you know is an emotional construct.

A grimdark “hero” has a tendency to go all in – to burn their bridges even when they don’t need the warmth. They are, in their way, an allegory for hope, in so much as having been shown there’s no meaning in the world, they still cling to some elements of it. And in those choices they are revealed.

The way it’s painted by the disapproving you would think that grimdark fiction was the literature of surrender to the inevitable. When in truth it is the story of the battle against it – sharpened by the knowledge that there’s no ultimate victory to be had. 


Read Mark Lawrences Newest Novel, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn


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Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence was born in Urbana–Champaign, Illinois, to British parents but moved to the UK at the age of one. He went back to the US after taking a PhD in mathematics at Imperial College to work on a variety of research projects including the ‘Star Wars’ missile defence programme. Returning to the UK, he has worked mainly on image processing and decision/reasoning theory. He says he never had any ambition to be a writer so was very surprised when a half-hearted attempt to find an agent turned into a global publishing deal overnight. His first trilogy, THE BROKEN EMPIRE, has been universally acclaimed as a ground-breaking work of fantasy. Following The Broken Empire is the related RED QUEEN’S WAR trilogy. THE BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR trilogy is set on a different world and is followed by the related BOOK OF THE ICE trilogy. There is also THE IMPOSSIBLE TIMES trilogy, a D&D/sci-fi work set in London in the 80s. All of these trilogies can be read in any order. Mark is married, with four children, and lives in Bristol.