I've seen many blog posts, interviews, and articles over the past couple years talking about the new wave of gritty fantasy. The usual authors mentioned include Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and George R. R. Martin. Mostly what the articles mention is the focus on realism and everything being shades of gray rather than the old black and white of high fantasy.
I agree with the assessments only in regards to Martin. I love his shades of gray and the truly gritty, mostly realistic portrayals of human nature. I tend to disagree, though, when it comes to the other writers.
I love gritty realism if done properly. This is why Martin is my favorite living fantasy writer. Created worlds that are treated with the same seriousness of our own real world appeal to me.
Abercrombie and Morgan certainly do gritty and absolutely do shades of gray, but what they don't do, in my opinion, is realism. You see, realism doesn't mean only gray, with no admirable people, as we mainly get in their novels. In the real life that I know, people have lots of faults, and there are truly some bad characters out there, but mostly what I see are people who truly try their best to be decent. I've found this to be true even in the most backwards countries that I visit.
That's where these writers go wrong for me. They make everyone pretty much repugnant. No one in their worlds seems to have much altruism. One might argue that their times are different than ours, but I would argue back that regardless of how bad life may have been at any time in history, there have always been at least some people with more positive attitudes toward life or generally more cheerful dispositions. There have always been a few who try to do right. There have always been some heroes, even if not perfect. In Best Served Cold Abercrombie did briefly have one character make a few noises in the direction of wishing to be a better person, but that died quickly as the character evolved into a monster. He did also have another character have a generally cheerful disposition...while being utterly vile in all other respects (and this was the character I liked best in the book).
Martin does a great job of getting this balance right. He has a few flat out bad characters, such as The Mountain That Rides or Tywin Lannister, but mostly he gives us characters that may appear evil at first, but once you get to know them a little better you can see that your first thoughts about them were not necessarily the entire story. This would apply to Jaime Lannister, Tyrion, and a few others.
I don't mean to be overly harsh with Abercrombie and Morgan. I got some enjoyment from their books, and I certainly believe there is an audience for what they do. Their work just doesn't seem as realistic to me as so many bloggers or critics suggest.
My own aim in writing has been to take the sweetness that I love in high fantasy and instill some of the serious realism that I love from Martin. I put shades of gray, but I also have altruism and real heroes...even if flawed.