Let me start by saying that this post isn’t a values judgment on Grimdark. A lot of Grimdark has some incredible writing, and some friends whose opinions I value highly name Grimdark as one of their favorite sub-genre. This is a personal piece on how I feel about it.
What is Grimdark? According to Know Your Meme, “Grimdark is an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy”. Writers such as Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, and George R. R. Martin are often agreed upon as writing in the sub-genre.
I don’t read any of these authors, even though I’ll be the first to say that what I’ve read of Martin (the author I’m most familiar with, and the one that the average reader has most probably heard of) has included solid plotting, interesting characters, and world-class prose.
If I like so much about his work, why don’t I read it? For a long time, I struggled to answer this question to my own satisfaction. One answer is that I usually give a story 50 pages to introduce a main character that I can unabashedly root for, and most Grimdark prides itself on having its characters more grey than black or white. But Martin introduces a couple of terrific characters in his opening chapters that almost anyone would be able to root for. Another answer is that I like my characters to have a certain amount of safety–in TV Tropes terms, I’m fine with Anyone Can Die, as long as I don’t feel the author means to Kill ‘Em All. But a savvy reader can get a feel of which characters are reasonably safe, and which are soon to get the ax. So again, why do I not read this sub-genre?
I believe it has something to do with the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy, for those not familiar, is the moment that you think, “If I walk away now, all the time/money/effort I’ve put into ____ will be lost.” It is the failure to realize that said time, money, and effort, is lost either way, and in certain cases, that persisting will have little chance of earning back what you’re putting into it. It’s a reason why gamblers can so easily lose everything by doubling down on the previous bet. It gets to the point where earning out is the goal. It’s not about winning anymore; it’s about trying to minimize loss. And in truth, the only reasonable way to minimize loss is to accept loss and walk away.
How does this relate to the reason that I don’t read Grimdark? Simple. As the story progresses, it becomes less and less likely that I’ll be able to earn out. That my losses will be at least met by my gains. In fact, I feel that a key aspect of Grimdark is to avoid that ever happening. Losses must almost always outweigh gains, in the end, and the best that you can hope for is to avoid losing everything. But for me, this means that the ending can never make up for what I’ve gone through, what the characters have gone through, to get to it. Continuing to read is like continuing to double down on the lost bet. At some point, I have to walk away from the table.