Escapism? Yes, Please! by Deborah J. Ross

One of the criticisms of genre fiction that amuses me most is that it’s escapism, as if that’s a bad thing. I think just the opposite. Nobody, except the unbelievably incompetent, escapes to jail. (I’m not talking about the chronically incarcerated who, unable to function in normal society, deliberately choose actions that will return them to imprisonment, although that’s an interesting image when it comes to preferred reading material.) No, the direction of escape is toward freedom, imagination, innovation, pleasure. In other words, we move toward becoming bigger, richer lives. So what is “escapism” an accusation of? Why is it bad to want something better?

What do we mean by “escape”? Escape from what? The critics mean, of course, escape from “real” life: responsibility, order, duty, piety. Underlying this notion is the assumption that life should be serious (serious = grim, humorless, unpleasant, joyless). You should work hard and deny yourself pleasure “for your own good.” You should accept the way things are (“be realistic”). If you find reality oppressive and intolerable, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. You’re weak-willed, inadequate, ineffectual, immature, lazy, stupid . . . you’ve heard the litany. I’ve exaggerated a bit here to make a point, which is that this attitude (“life sucks, get used to it”) arises from a pernicious blend of Puritanical abhorrence of pleasure and the need for conformity in an industrialized society. Under such a system, the two greatest sins are to seek delight and to follow one’s own preferences. In other words, to not only be open to change but to create it, to challenge the established order, to question and to dream.  To value joy above productive capacity and meaningfulness above popularity. To be an individual, not a cog in an assembly line, to sometimes be productive but other times contemplative — in other words, to be unpredictable and unique.

When we speak of pleasure, we cannot avoid the issue of sensory pleasure and sexual ecstasy. Sexuality is a powerful, primal source of energy. No wonder industrialists are afraid of it, except when they can use it to sell things. They want us to be consumers, not originators. This brings me to a second way in which escapism is considered bad, and that is as a force of appeasement, of sedation, a means to drain off rebellious energy and maintain the status quo. I think genre literature, especially fantasy and science fiction, works exactly in the opposite way. The dichotomy and mutual exclusivity between body and mind or spirit is not a universal belief, nor is the insistence on negating or minimizing the importance of the full range of physical sensations. They are, however, tools of a hierarchical society. People are, after all, easier to control when they can be convinced to invalidate their direct experiences of themselves and the world, to distrust themselves and instead trust an external authority. Pleasure must be sinful when it seduces people from abject obedience. And yet, in every age and circumstance, people consistently seek it out, whether through sex or music or drugs or listening to a whopping good tale.

It can be argued that if we’re reading, we’re “in our heads,” ignoring bodily sensations. Yet our bodies respond to a gripping tale, a tear-jerker, an erotic scene. Good writing involves all the senses, and enlarges our notions of what is possible. It allows us to explore novelty and discover preferences. Even in the dreariest surroundings, our internal world can be saturated with vivid sensual details.

In this way, “escapist” literature is deeply subversive. It creates personal, private, internal worlds that are beyond the control of government, religion, or any other repressive institution. We seek out the books that please us, and each of us has a different experience of the same story, different aspects that we connect to. We find different flavors of wonder and delight. While it may not be true that all of us put down a “guilty pleasure” book and immediately go out and foment rebellion in the streets, I believe that in reading what we choose, we are committing a profoundly revolutionary act. We are practicing being imaginative, defiant, adventurous, alien, romantic, dangerous . . . uncontrollable.

Escapist? You bet! Bring it on!

The painting is by Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) and is in the public domain.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.

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Escapism? Yes, Please! by Deborah J. Ross — 17 Comments

  1. Brava!

    Story allows us to try on new behaviors, new bravery, new challenges–all while lulling us into the idea that we’re “merely” being entertained. For my money, story is a human essential that allows us to grow.

  2. Brava! You’ve explained the prejudice of conformity in terms a lot of people can relate to. No more feeling guilty about what we read or why we read it.

    Storytelling as a teaching tool is best when it engages the interest of the audience by becoming a rousing and gripping tale. Genre fiction existed in myth and legend long before the narrow confines of modern life.

    Take the bodice ripper, sword and sorcery, or western yarn out of the brown paper bag.

  3. I saw this quote in Sunday’s paper. I sums it up nicely, I think:

    “I don’t feel like Write to Read just gave me a book and asked me to read. I feel like they gave me a book and told me to dream, to see a better life for me.”

    Shannon Martin as told to Brenda Payton, Book ‘em: Juvenile Hall Success Story, SF Chronicle

  4. Thanks, all – I knew I was among kindred spirits here!

    Marlene — Isn’t it inspiring what happens when people read books? I used to administer the Reading is FUNdamental program at my daughter’s school. I vividly remember the faces of the kids when they received a book — of their own — of their own choosing (and in their own language, as we were a bilingual school). Often, it was the only book they’d ever owned.

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  6. You got it, Deborah. There is no greater threat to humanity than conformity, for by escaping to the possibilities in our imagination comes forward progress, as we reach for the better world we envision. Escapism? Lead me to it!

  7. The sentences I remember best tend to look dorky in isolation, because they are built up to and carry the weight of most if not all of the story, lending them grandeur.

    “I see Bianca.”

  8. Yes, for escapism!

    For me escapism what will allow me to stop obsessing over the latest disaster. I know how bad things are when nothing works, as in the two nights before Irene, and the night of Irene — no book, no dvd, could hold my interest at all. What did allow us to handle the night of the hurricane, was us as a posse of friends, after battening the hatches making dinner, talking, cleaning up, making music, then making a video of the song my husband just blasted together in a half hour about Hurricane Irene.

    But now that the emergency for me personally has come and gone — though it keeps going on and is getting worse for tens of thousands as rivers keep rising — I’m back to David Simon dvds and Lane Robin’s fantasy duology (unless there’s going to be another volume?) — in order to handle myself before bed.

    Love, C.

  9. Along these lines, Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series helped me cope after the long and terrible weeks in which both my divorced parents died within days of each other, though from different causes, and the aftermath of making two funerals and coping with all the conflicting families. I got the flu and stayed in bed with Deverry for a long time.

    Love, C.

  10. The books that helped me through dark times occupy a special place in my heart and my bookshelf. Sometimes I can’t articulate exactly why they’re so special. I suspect my feelings arise from the combination of the text itself and how I took it and created an internal lifeline.

  11. It’s not as though these books don’t deal with terrible things either. Deverry is anything but ‘fluffy’ for instance. Anthony Powell’s A Dance To the Music of Time is not fluffy either, but this was another ‘escapism’ that worked during that wretched period of trying to come back from death here, death there, death all around me.

    In the same three years my baby sister was killed, my first editor, the editor who first BOUGHT writing from me, and so many others died too, from this that and the other thing(s).

    I treasure these books.

    Love, C.

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