escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it.
You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you
didn’t have before.” Neil Gaiman (via terribleminds)
I swore I wasn’t going to write about the ages-old escapist v. literary controversy. What is there left to say? Oh sure, I’ve got theories up the wahoo, but really, hasn’t the subject been hashed to death? But the quote above from Neil Gaiman has swept like a wave through the twittersphere this morning, so maybe there is still something to say about it.
I studied Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University which emphasized the more literary side of literature. Since then, I occasionally entertain myself by trying to pin down exactly what is this escapist stuff and whether, or to what degree, it is genuinely inferior to “serious” or “literary” writing.
Accordingly, I Googled. Because that is what one does in these latter times when one wonders, however briefly, about anything.
Escapist fiction is fiction which provides a psychological
escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader
in exotic situations or activities.
The term is not used favorably, though the condemnation contained
in it may be slight. Those who defend works described as escapist from the charge either assert that they are not escapist—such as, a science fiction novel's satiric aspects address real life—or defend the notion of "escape" as such, not "escapism"—as in J. R. R. Tolkien's "On Fairy- Stories" and C. S. Lewis's quotation, in his "On Science fiction" of Tolkien's question of who would be most hostile to the idea of escape, and his answer: jailers.
Really? Really! That’s the definition you literary types are going with? And with that little curl to your lip? Yeah well, let’s just take a peek at some examples, shall we? Oh look! The Odyssey: Nothing exotic about that. Because we just know the Greeks routinely stumbled over giants and witches and sirens every first Thursday of the month. Huh. Reminds me of something…what was it…Oh right! The Lord of the Rings. Those darn hero journeys. So unliterary.
But wait, there’s more: Beowulf, you say? But that’s literature; We know because we got it rammed down our throats in Jr. High School. Yeah? Well, I call shenanigans. The Anglo-Saxon poet who composed that epic had never seen a monster named Grendel, or his mother, or a dragon. No one ever had. He made it all up to entertain the kiddies around the hearth during long winter evenings. Yup. Escapism.
Oh… Oh my. What do I see you shoving under your shirt tail…Frankenstein? And trying to nudge Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the sofa with your toe. Shame on you. And is that Edgar Allen Poe you’re trying to hide behind your back? Yes, I should think you would blush.
Don’t even get me started on mythology and fairy tales. Odin gouging out his eye and hanging from the branch of Yggdrasil to gain wisdom? Babba Yaga trotting around in her chicken-leg hut? Nothing exotic about that. No siree!
Oh, you think those examples don’t count because they’re old, and anything old is automatically literature. Okay: Ursula K. LeGuin. Enough said. Unless you want me to add Suzee McKee Charnes, Suzette Haden Elgin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Plenty exotic, but they’re all some damn serious social commentary.
You’re seriously going to point to all those thousands of stories held up to us as Literature with a capital “L” and say, "But of course, reading anything that couldn't happen here in the real world to the guy sitting next to you is a sign of a weak mind, of someone who can't face the real world,"? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s it at all. See, because when you get all snooty and squinty, you’re not valuing a story for its insight or its ability to enlighten the audience and enlarge their courage or their understanding of themselves. You’re snubbing something else.
I’m going to go out on a limb, hang by my toes from the tippy-tip of the branch and tell you what you really mean when you say “escapist fiction”:
Escapist Fiction is any fiction that is fun to read.
Boom! Yeah, you heard me. I said it: Fun. To. Read.
Because I don’t need to read angsty, navel-gazing stories about self-absorbed and unappealing people who would seriously benefit from a good axe-murdering early in the first chapter to make way for someone with a little gumption. I’m bipolar; that’s my Wednesday.
So you know what’s escapist? Huckleberry Finn, that’s what! Anything by Jane Austen! That’s right, unmitigated fluff! And J.R.R.T and C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald and Terry Freakin’ Pratchet! You’re damn straight they’re escapist, and you know what? They’re also sodden with truth and social commentary and political and psychological significance. Are you going to turn up your nose because of a magic lion and a handful of hobbits?
Because escapism includes such tripe as Sherlock Holmes and his modern descendent, the police procedural. Frankenstein could be considered the precursor to the modern medical thriller while we all know that Poe was among the progenitors of the detective genre. Beowulf? Horror. And the horror genre includes the frivolity of such geniuses as H.P. Lovecraft, who explored the human sense of alienation in a universe grown large and indifferent as science displaced religion, and Stephen King, who brings catharsis to our fear of the dark and reassures us of the fundamental humanity in human nature. Jekyll and Hyde is the ancestor of the serial killer story that comes full circle in its ultimate and inevitable grandchild, Dexter, who embodies the irresolvable tension between vengeance and justice.
Sure, all these modern progeny vary in their value to our psychological growth, but calling them escapist is a willful blindness because even Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, even the fluffiest, silliest chick-lit exercises our faculty for identifying and empathizing with other people.
Here’s the thing: Stories act on our brains in the same way dreams do. They activate the same parts of our brains that turn on when we are dreaming, and if we don’t dream, even if we are getting enough sleep to rest and physically recharge, we become more and more mentally deranged. We lose the ability to transfer short term memory to long-term storage. We have delusions and hallucinations, and if that goes on long enough, we die. Freaky, no? So it’s an important function. Dreams sort us out. We process emotions, we organize our memories, we hard-wire the skills we learned during the day—long division, or that tennis backhand we practiced all afternoon.
So you know what stories are? They’re dreams, and the weirdest things happen in dreams!
Oh fine, maybe you’re one of those people who dreams about ironing sheets, and you never explored an alien landscape or did battle with titans. Sucks to be you, doesn’t it?
I’m being deliberately playful. Call this diatribe irony or satire or whatever you like. Defend escapism or deny that escapist fiction is in any way escapist. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.