Monday, February 21, 2011

Pretty vs Gritty.

In Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan, a photography teacher refers to two of his students as Pretty and Gritty. Pretty takes a lot of pictures of trees and flowers, Gritty does urban landscapes and homeless people.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference. Fellow writer / blogger Nick Cross has also written about this juxtaposition, calling it Catharsis vs. Escapism. Obviously the best books have both, but some artists are definitely more Pretty and others much more Gritty. Why? And how much choice to we have in the matter?

Because I tend to be an awfully gritty writer. I start writing a middle grade novel about pirates, and end up dealing with issues of slavery and rape.

Some writers deal with dark subject matter as a way to consider their own lives. That's what Nick Cross means when he talks about catharsis. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Author Meg Cabot has talked about how her difficult childhood with an alcoholic father prompted her light-hearted stories: "Romantic fiction was the only thing that helped me escape when my life was the worst it ever was (and the worst I hope it ever will be). And I vowed then that if I ever became a professional writer, I’d write books that I hoped would give readers like me a fun escape from whatever awful thing they were going through" (the whole post is incredibly thought-provoking, touching, and worth reading).

Thankfully, I had a safe childhood. So perhaps my gritty novels are the result of a fascination with darkness.

But I think, more so, I'm obsessed with truth. I don't like to read romances with flawless (and beautiful) characters whose lives end happily ever after. Or watch movies about inner-city children who beat the odds and never look back. As a former teacher, I know it doesn't happen like that. Instead, I've discussed oral sex with kids, bullying, sexual harassment, self-harming, abuse. Some of this with children as young as twelve. It happens. Unfortunately, it happens frequently. So to me it doesn't feel right to skate over these issues.

But at the same time, I miss escapist writing. One of these days I'd like to write a really fun book about pirates. I'll let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, on Wednesday I'll review of one of the best gritty books I've read recently, Heidi Ayarbe's Compromised.

Are you consistently Pretty or Gritty? Or do you somehow manage to balance both?


  1. I think I'm a Pretty writer. Possibly because I've lead a very happy and sheltered life and as a result have never encountered or experienced anything truly Gritty. I don't think I could convincingly write something truly Gritty. However I don't write perfect Pretty stories - I try and have equal levels of happiness and hardships.

  2. I'm most definitely both. I like exploring the human nature and its many facets of love, hate, joy and depression. Knowing why we do what we do, and the possible consequences of our actions, in many ways, inspires me to be a better person. To this effect, I explore it. I own it. Though, I watched my father die in a hospital bed when he was shot, this is not the reason for my fascination of gritty writing. Instead, this propelled me to escape the realities of the world and into that of another, more pretty environment. I like happy endings, 'cause I never had one, and I enjoy, stories where characters face the harsh realities of our world, but pull through to a decent happily ever after.

    Pretty and Gritty, that's me. :D

  3. Rachael: Yes, I think your writing is fairly balanced. And of course it's important to write what you know. Unrealistic gritty stories upset me a lot more than perfect pretty ones. And we can all use some escapist fiction in our lives!

    TD: You do seem to encompass both pretty and gritty! I agree about exploring human nature. I think that's why several of my stories become dark. There's just certain things I can't let pass without considering. But I'm totally with you about good endings--there has to be some hope!

  4. In the old film Sullivan's Travels (which inspired Oh Brother Where Art Thou), a privileged Hollywood director decides to make a film about the Great Depression & travels round the US for research. He ends up in prison where he sees that the only time the convicts are really happy is when they're watching a funny film. So he gives up the idea for his gritty film and decides to make comedies from then on, because he realises people need laughter.

    Which is another way of saying I verge on the escapist side :) When I'm having a bad week I don't want to read Hamlet. But I do believe you can have both and that's my favourite. Slumdog Millionaire was incredibly gritty right up until the happy ending, and The Wire had piles of grit mixed with humour.

    Hmmm, I could talk about this all day, great post!

  5. GF: Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, this. I worry about too much darkness. And some days writing is really hard for me, too, because my story is so SAD. Writing a sad story is even worse than reading it, because it takes so much longer. Hence my deep need to write about fun pirates. =) But I guess at the end of the day we need to write whatever is most true to us. But this is a good reminder to me to aim for balance. Great examples!

  6. I lean towards the very gritty. What you've described -- starting out with a fun concept and getting serious -- is exactly what I do. I think you CAN combine both. I don't think there's anything wrong with fluff or that it's simple to write and market, and there is DEFINITELY a place for it; a friend of mine going through a bad patch in her marriage used to read three Harlequin romances a day, and more power to her and the people who write them. But the grit appeals to me, as does writing it in a way that is funny and hopeful.

    Good for you for discussing those hard subjects with kids. Our kids will talk about almost everything with us and we're so glad they do. The good thing about having this sort of relationship with your kids (or kids you teach, mentor, etc.) is that you know where they stand on all sorts of issues. There is also little our kids can do to shock us.

  7. When I started out writing in the 90's I was gritty, but now I'm pretty. I'd like to go back to gritty, though, since I have some dark book ideas.

    I recently bought Flash Burnout. I can't wait to read it.

  8. What an intersting post, Anne. Although I try to find a balance, I veer towards gritty. I just read a lower MG ms from a crit buddy who captured a "pretty" voice but dealt with the "gritty" topic of girl bullying.

    For me, that's the balance I wish to achieve.

  9. Loved Flash Burnout, Anne. It's on my list to buy during my next indie bookstore visit. And I remember that post by Meg Cabot! I've often wished I'd bookmarked it, so thanks, Anne, for including it.

  10. Mary: Good to know I share a similar process to you! I think you've described that balance perfectly, between digging into the gritty, but holding on to your sense of humor and hope. And another passionate defense of pretty books. Of course there isn't wrong with anything that can give us so much joy, especially in difficult times.

    That's great that you have that kind of relationship with your kids. I don't think there's enough of those sorts of discussions, and whether through adults, or books, or TV, or whatever (preferably all sorts of ways), kids really need to be thinking about and discussing what's going on in the world around them and how they're dealing with it.

    Medeia: How interesting! Did you consciously set out to do one or the other? I have read about authors finding their voice by switching from gritty to pretty and vice versa. Maybe you will be on of those rare writers who can write about both equally well and with balance. Flash Burnout is great. It really digs into these issues of gritty vs pretty and how our backgrounds can affect us.

  11. Bridgette: Thanks! Your crit partner's book sounds really interesting. I think those, with pretty voices and gritty topics, are some of my favorites. Partly, I think I just wish I could write more MG, but my voice always veers too far into gritty territory. But this conversation has encouraged me to keep trying!

    Anne: You're welcome! I was really struck by that post by Meg Cabot, too. She's one of my favorite bloggers. Very funny and casual, a reader can get lulled into thinking her posts are all fluff. Then BAM! she'll hit you over the head with some powerful point.

  12. Fascinating topic Anne! Very thought-provoking.

    I'm somewhere in the middle - striving to create stories with a balance of realism and hope, rather than an unrealistic, happily-ever-after kind of thing.


  13. Hey, welcome home, Elisabeth! Sounds like you're in the perfect place, balancing in the middle. That hope is especially important for kids' books, I think.

  14. Hey, Elisabeth, welcome home! Sounds like you're in the perfect spot, balancing in the middle! I think the element of hope is especially important in kids' books.

  15. I think I did it unconsciously. I have some future gritty plans.

  16. Medeia: It will be interesting to hear how your future gritty writing goes, and if the process feels any different, or if it's basically the same. How wonderful to be able to write both. Good luck!


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