Gritty fantasy can be roughly defined as minimal-magic books dealing with the harsher aspects of conflict, where the protagonists are not necessarily likeable, admirable, or 'good'.
Heroic fantasy at its most straightforward is The Hero(ine) vs The Evil. Magic is strongly present in these novels, making clearer just who The Evil is, often with (as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) helpful Colour-Coding.
My reactions to these debates has generally been:
- Gritty fantasy is supposed to be something new?
- Gritty fantasy still reads like fantasy to me - we're not going to run out of new sub-genre seats on the fantasy bus.
- It doesn't help to suggest that non-gritty fantasy is somehow immature.
- There are a lot more than two sub-genres in fantasy.
For the most part I've regarded the whole debate with slight bemusement, the same as I would if I found page after blog-page devoted to how Sour Cream & Chives chips are the one true chip, while Cheese & Onion chips are mere pretenders to the deep-fried potato world - or how only kids eat Sour Cream & Chives, and educated folk prefer Cheese & Onion.
And of course I can't help but apply the debate to my own novels, which certainly don't fit the definition of gritty, but don't match that definition of heroic fantasy either (Salt & Vinegar fantasy!). My books are very high in the magic quotient, and my heroines are generally likeable (I hope), but I'm not falling conveniently into this gritty v heroic argument.
One of my favourite reader reviews for Champion, from the inestimable Chich, says:
Aside from the main character—and you probably know this only because you are in her head—there are no good guys or bad guys. Instead, there are a group of powerful people, everyone with their own agenda trying to impose their will over the rest. But seriously, at one point or another, you have reason to doubt the motives behind anyone's actions. Maybe because this other series I was reading, where the bad guys were so very evil, I kept trying to find someone to blame—to hate. However, much as it happens to the characters in the book, most situations could be looked at from different perspectives and with enough reasons for their actions, instead of anger, the most you can feel for some characters is pity.When I'm writing, I tend to write about people, not good guys and bad guys. I don't write massively detailed back stories for every single person who trots across the page, but if they do something, I need to have some vague idea why they're doing it. "Because they're evil" isn't a very useful motive.
I don't tend to regard the vast majority of people as awful monsters. I tend to regard most people as a variable combination of kind and petty, operating under a straightforward system of enlightened self-interest. They'll be helpful or indifferent toward you, unless their own interests are in some way impacted, and then they start making moral decisions. But in increasingly extreme situations, self-interest and circumstances can lead people into becoming 'evil'.
Champion does have a kind of evil lurking behind everything (Champion's world is actually my fantasy version of a genetic engineering makes monsters which kill you Frankenstein story), but almost everyone is acting in their own self-interest, or the interest of the country they're loyal to. Stained Glass Monsters is about the process of becoming evil (or not), and how the small choices you make while trying to do whatever you must, can dramatically change what other choices you have to make, and how you're regarded. Medair, of course, gives us two sides and then hopelessly muddies them, and adds to that a second question of how 'good' Medair's side was - the Ibisian invasion is undoubtedly an evil, but it takes Medair a tremendously long time to recognise that the utopian Palladian Empire she constantly mourns is the result of the systematic invasion of an entire continent.
Gritty? Heroic? Neither? Not real fantasy? Bleh. Silly argument. Fantasy is an infinitely adaptable genre, and we all have our own flavour preference.