In Defense of Escapism
One of the many attractions of genre fiction is the ability to have deep, meaningful conversations with the world around us; where we’re headed and what it might mean, where we’ve been and how that affects us today, where we are and the struggles we face in the moment. It gives us a lens, via the imagination, through which we can tackle some of humanity’s greatest challenges and, perhaps, offer solutions.
Crucially, however, it is entertaining, delivering important messages or asking important questions along with epic battles, political intrigue, inter-personal drama, more battles and a touch of romance. With all the potential in genre fiction for tackling the difficulties of the human condition, it doesn’t come as a surprise that some in the field turn their noses up at stories that do not do so, the stories that are still horror, fantasy or science fiction but skirt the big issues in favor of something else: fun, entertainment, escapism.
We tend to devalue escapism for its own sake as being somehow lesser, or entirely unworthy.
This, I feel, is a mistake. Escapism has value in and of itself. That value might be different from the big-issue type, but it is not lesser by any means.
The world, and life, can be terribly scary and overwhelming. It can really wear you down, tear you up. It can be a burden too heavy to bear for long stretches. Just as you would put down a heavy object for a bit to rest, so you might pick up a fun, light read for a time. Escapism is absolutely necessary, particularly in today’s climate. There absolutely is value in stepping back from the world and finding somewhere to hide for a little while, as we gather our strength. I know I did it quite a bit growing up. Sometimes, I wonder if would have made it through my teens without the ability to escape into a fictional world for a time. It’s an escape I still do from time to time today. Play is valuable, even for adults. Fun for fun’s sake is encouraged. This isn’t just for children.
That fun extends to reading and writing. It can be difficult to read or write something deep and heavy (though as a general rule, I love that in my fiction), particularly if real life is weighing one down. This isn’t to say that deep and heavy is bad, just as light and fun is not bad. Nor is deep and heavy superior to light and fun. They both have value, but that value is different. Neither is lesser nor greater than the other, certainly not when it comes to quality of writing.
Quality of story and of writing often have nothing to do with the issues tackled within a book, or not, as the case may be. Certainly there are writers who have tackled the Serious Subjects (TM) have done so beautifully, and writers who just wanted to have a little fun on the page have not managed so well. It is also true that writers who have things to say have done it poorly, and writers with nothing more than a good yarn have managed it brilliantly. It would be well to keep in mind that quality writing and serious writing are not synonymous.
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with reading and writing fun things purely for the sake of having fun, and nothing more. Turning one’s nose up at readers who do so, and writers who enable it is just another form of tiresome gate-keeping that genre could do without, thank you very much.
On occasion, we find ourselves needing some levity just to be able to bear the weight of life. Let people have their fun. Let’s not turn our noses at escapism.
Stories that bring us unbound joy, that buy us a reprieve, that deliver unfettered delight ought to be valued and celebrated, not snubbed and denigrated.
Escapism has value.
When S.M. Carrière isn’t brutally killing your favorite characters, she spends her time teaching martial arts, live streaming video games, and cuddling her cats. In other words, she spends her time teaching others to kill, streaming her digital kills, and cuddling furry murderers. Her most recent titles include ‘Daughters of Britain’ and ‘Skylark.’
This brings to mind two quotes, the first from the English poet W.H. Auden: “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” The second is from the American film critic Pauline Kael: “If art isn’t entertainment, what is it? Punishment?”
For myself, I’ve been punished by enough books that were a displeasure to read to recognize the value of good, honest entertainment.
I love that Kael quote, Thomas!
I started reading comic books at age 7, and eventually science fiction (usually in paperback) at around 11, because Mom and Dad wouldn’t take us to drive-in movies except for Westerns (which I loved) and Doris Day-style romcoms (which I was too young to appreciate). I got caught up in more ‘serious’ literature with Classics Illustrated comics, which encouraged me to read the books on which those comics were based. I learned to love reading, and not just for escapist entertainment; eventually, I’d become an English major in college, focusing, in grad school, on 19th & 20th century British and American authors. I developed a true love for serious literature, but more often than not turned to SF and fantasy and horror for relief from the headier stuff that I never truly got the opportunity to teach ( I wound up all too frequently with multiple sections of college composition courses). Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have been my most constant companions for well over 55 years now. Classic literature is still a kick to get into, but when my wife died just after I retired, I found that I needed to escape just that much more often. I’ve read a lot of bad SF, but even the stinkers manage to spark just that barest bit of the sense of wonder that keeps me turning to SF more than anything else. When it’s time for me to take that Last Great Journey, I expect I’ll have a science fiction novel clutched in my hands. I can’t imagine a better way to go.
Escape is so important, and deserves to be defended.
When I wrote my first Black Gate post, back in the Late Cretaceous Period, I was thinking a lot about protecting students’ escapist skills and fantasy lives while still welcoming fantasy literature into teaching processes that many students, reasonably, might wish to escape from (https://www.blackgate.com/2011/05/02/teaching-fantasy-part-1-rewards-backfires-escapes/).
That’s a great article! Also, I adore that Tolkien quote at the end. The man was wise.
Interesting how what actually constitutes escapism is largely relative. In a dull, if law-abiding society, readers will hanker after stories of danger and derring-do. In a culture where violence is more commonplace, they’ll often want to read about a world safer and cosier than their own.
That’s probably true, though plenty of unstable, violent times in our own history have yielded equally violent tales. The theme of those, however, was usually that good, however that was perceived, wins out in the end; a reflection of a fervent hope which might not have a basis in the reality of the lives they were leading.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic since writing the response I gave above just before I went to bed. I guess true escapism for me would be reading a Star Wars or Star Trek novel, or one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books: my emotional involvement with the characters would already be guaranteed before I even cracked open the book, so I could focus more on story and plot than on character development. That’s not to say I’d ignore character maturation, something I enjoyed very much in going through the Harry Potter series. But I know Spock and Kirk and McCoy well enough to know how they’ll interact in resolving a conflict, and escaping into the familiar can be a great comfort. For more ‘serious’ literature, familiarity can be boring, even deadening: in my last 23 years as a college English professor, I taught at least one section every semester of a basic literature course — twice a year, then, and sometimes three or four times if I ended up with more than one section in a semester. “Hamlet” was one of 4 plays we read/watched in that course, and I saw the Kevin Kline version of that play at least 40 times (yes, all the way through each time). I soon found myself less concerned about story, and even character, and more on interpretation, but watching the same actors over and over again can ‘breed contempt,’ as Chaucer once said. So, to stay fresh, I watched other versions of the play (two live, and four on film), none of which I enjoyed quite as much as Kline’s, so it actually became fun to see what was added, what was left out, and what was done very differently. For me, making those comparisons of the different interpretations was a kind of escape, a very welcome one, and it was pleasant to ‘escape’ back into the familiar when the next semester rolled around. I haven’t seen the play since retiring 2 1/2 years ago, since I’ve preferred to escape from the world of academia as much as I can, although I’d welcome a chance to tackle the role of Claudius if the local theater company decided to produce the play. That would be the ultimate escape, wouldn’t it?
I agree wholly with escaping into the familiar. It’s why so many of my childhood reads are re-read so often, even if they’re problematic. There’s a lot of comfort there.