Hugboxing and Scabpicking

Once upon a time a friend sent me a tweet thread all about these two terms. I can’t find the tweet thread right now, but it and what the friend said has stuck with me hard.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, or perhaps familiar but familiar with multiple definitions, here’s how I see them. Both are responses in fiction to problems in the world. Hugboxing is about writing tales where the problem is confronted and defeated, and people may suffer but ultimately everything is well. Scabpicking is about writing tales where the problem is confronted and the author hisses “this! this is fucked up!” and people suffer a lot.

The terms may be new, but the ideas are not. People might conflate hugboxing with comfort reads or hopepunk or utopian fiction or noblebright or whatever term they like. They may well see it in Tolkien and Lewis, in Pratchett and Rowling, in Mercedes Lackey and Lois McMaster Bujold and countless others. Scabpicking certainly has similarities with some of the approaches taken by Grimdark, and other genre challenging works like Moore’s Watchmen and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and some of the more angry Sword & Sorcery like Michael Moorcock’s and some of Howard’s diatribes against civilisation.

I very much hope someone somewhere went “but X reminds me of Y” Maybe they see some of Pratchett’s more trenchant moments at picking at the scab, or see comfort in Howard’s wish fulfilment.

The tweet thread I read talked about them as opposing ideas. That seems pretty reasonable, but every time I see opposing ideas I see two ends of a spectrum, and sometimes two axes of a graph.

Can a work both provide comforting idealistic tales of resistance, and dirty realistic/hyperbolic tales of pain?

I think for many there’s a dividing line, and that a tale might have elements of both but will ultimately fall to one side come the ending and that the side it falls to will colour all perception of the memory. This is a very human reaction, but it’s one where I find going through the processing again restores more nuance, detail, and information. Our brains are not always the most perfect machines. I think you can coach your brain to see both at the same time better. A lot of books run on different lines to how they end.

But even beyond that, what of multi-PoV books where not every character meets equally shiny ends? In Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, some of the characters get sparkly happy endings and some get absolutely ravaged. Is it a blackly humourous hugboxing book about working your way through trauma and finding a space to operate in a world dominated by goliaths, or a bleak scabpicking book about the difficulty of working your way through trauma and the cost of violence? I feel like if Abercrombie saw this, he might say yes.

Or what of series where books shift in tone, some ending more hopeful than others? I’m currently rereading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry with some fine friends, and I’m sure many of them will agree the ending of the first book, The Summer Tree, is far more grim than the second, The Wandering Fire. Is the first book a more scabpicking book than the second? I would personally argue no, and if anything the opposite, as book two deals with the trauma inflicted by the end of the first book, a book that is mostly magic and enchantment. Is the series a whole a comforting examination of healing from the loss of loved ones through the prism of the fantastic, or a scabpicking look at the cost of resisting evil and the actualities of adventure and trauma? Or both?

Or neither all that strongly, and it’s just a wild tale of myth reimagined, the moments of examined humanity too few and far between to mean anything?

I’m sure I could find people to agree with all of those. After all, I feel like if you ask five readers to define a thing, you often get six answers back. Which in itself presents obstacles to seeing a work as universally one or t’other.

Perhaps, in their way, they can be seen as complimentary. While I do know a great many who prefer one or the other, I know very few people who only read one. Hope and serenity and quiet courage alone is simply a recipe for endurance in a world dictated by others; anger and blood red boldness alone is a recipe for pain that isn’t always under control. An alliance between the two can offer the best of both worlds; the apex of a shape is formed from two opposing sides rest against each other, after all.

Even if that isn’t the case, the existence of one shouldn’t invalidate the other. The world, and all the worlds of fantasy, are more than broad enough to accommodate both.

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