I have observed here many a time before that the words "dark and gritty" are constantly used by critics as "terms of praise, rather than descriptors, as if no other tone is even worth attempting." As I have also remarked, I find this position artistically and intellectually problematic, not only because it narrows creative possibilities in particular instances, because of what this means for our broader cultural life - and inextricable from it, our political life.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to see all "dark and gritty" writing as one and the same. In fact, where its politics are concerned, it is worth remembering that the approach can be used to different ends. The "dark and gritty" approach can be a progressive's or radical's indictment of the prevailing order of things - the ways in which it corrupts, degrades and may ultimately destroy us, and accordingly, why that order should and must be changed. Hard-boiled crime fiction largely started that way, with books like Dashiell Hammett's classic Red Harvest. Alternatively, it can be a conservative or reactionary's defense of that order, a lesson in the Fallen, dark or otherwise flawed nature of humanity, the existence of "evil," and so forth, so that attempts to ameliorate the world's injustice and suffering are futile or counterproductive, and harsh measures to keep the worst in us and of us in line far preferable to the alternative. This sensibility underlies a great deal of fiction, too, like survivalist-themed postapocalyptic tales where civilization goes down thunderously, and gives way to a Hobbesian aftermath.
Today it is the conservative version of dark and gritty that we see celebrated by critics, and endlessly enacted by those writers seeking their approval - its popularity, interestingly, extending far beyond those who identify as actual conservatives. It is easy enough to imagine why someone not necessarily subscribing to such politics may embrace it, at least from time to time, like the inclination to wallow in the morbid when one feels down, or in the case of frustrated adolescents, a sense of such a world-view as empowering (imagining a Hobbesian monster inside them letting them think of themselves as tough guys). However, for the most part it seems a reflection of the underappreciated extent to which conservative intellectual premises have become predominant, just like the prevalence of postmodernist philosophy, and the virtually unquestioned standing of neoliberal economics, beneath the superficialities of the political rhetoric of our time.
David Walsh Reviews Django Unchained
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