The Sunday Salon: The Value of Escapism

In the eternal, pointless, and semantically frustrating battle of “literary fiction” versus “genre fiction” (I can’t even, people), the word “escapism” is sometimes thrown at speculative fiction. The argument goes that the fantasy and science fiction fans can’t face the harshness of reality (depicted in “literary fiction” as, to quote a professor at Agnes, “two people in a room getting a divorce”) and so prefer to immerse themselves in fantastical worlds where they can unobtrusively (or obtrusively, in the case of Mary Sues) be someone else. I’d always thought that argument was awful, because I’d only ever seen it used to prove that “literary fiction” is superior, and rejected the argument entirely—including rejecting escapism itself. But a recent episode of This American Life, of all things, made me reevaluate the concept of escapism itself, including its merits.

In “Show Me the Way” (Act Two: “Just South of the Unicorns”), This American Life covers the story of Andy, who, in his youth in the late eighties, ran away across the country to go live with fantasy author Piers Anthony. Anthony, whom I’ve never read and am not particularly likely to, given his weird track record of sexualizing underage female characters, isn’t the focus of the story. Rather, it’s about Andy’s quest for acceptance and understanding, which he couldn’t find in California. Andy first sought escape in Anthony’s works (as well as Stephen King’s), but soon found a more satisfying escape in Anthony’s author’s notes, thirty to forty-page affairs where he talked about his normal life on a farm in Florida. Eventually, his life got so bad that he decided to take a chance and run away to Anthony’s home, the location of which he pieced together from a map of Xanth and the author’s notes. Instead of a home with Anthony, as he hoped, Andy gets advice, and, throughout the rest of his high school career, takes comfort in the knowledge that there’s a better world out there than the one he’s stuck in.

What struck me about Andy’s story is that Andy’s escapism didn’t just take the form defenders of “literary fiction” assign to readers of “genre fiction”. While it started there, Andy’s fantasy of escape ended up being something fairly mundane—having useful days, as he says in the piece, which is something I can absolutely identify with. And what changes things for him is not Anthony indulging his fantasy, it’s Anthony treating him like an adult and actually listening to him talk through all his problems and taking him seriously. For an adolescent, being taken seriously and not dismissed is huge.

And perhaps that’s the inherent value of escapism: not avoiding your problems by hiding from them (which would be the detriment of escapism; everything has its good and bad side), but by being able to escape to another world where you can find solutions to your problems and be able to apply that to your own life. In Andy’s case, fantasizing about being his own agent in Xanth led to fantasizing about being his own agent in real life. And not being taken seriously isn’t relegated solely to teenagers. I’m a young woman and, if I forget to swagger a bit, people feel free to say irrelevant things to me and comment on my appearance. So it’s no wonder that, when I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I want to swear allegiance to Daenerys and I learn from her tenacity and determination, because even in the, frankly, awful to women world of Westeros, she’s forcing people to take her seriously. And it’s not something that’s solely relegated to “genre fiction”; one of my biggest heroines is Kitty Braden from the film version of Breakfast on Pluto. To escape into her life for the two hours of the film is not to avoid my own problems by replacing them with her considerable ones, but to spend time with a character who is honestly inspiring and carves a place for herself in a world that often hates her.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a little, shall we say, pure escapism; sometimes, we just want to read an easy book and enjoy ourselves. But escapism isn’t a bad word, and sometimes it can be downright important.

Dragon*Con is mere weeks away! I’ve been working on my Lady Fili costume, which is what I’ll be doing today, between actual work stuff, and I might throw in a Sherrie Christian from Rock of Ages, if only for the excuse to screech eighties music at people. Insofar as reading, I’ve started on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I hope to finish today, and I’ve also started on an audiobook of Anansi Boys, which I’ve been enjoying.

Tor/Forge is giving away a Cory Doctorow bundle until September 4. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What’s the value of escapism to you? Does it have a value beyond entertainment?

6 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Value of Escapism

  1. Great post today. I enjoyed that TAL story too.

    One of the things I appreciate about so-called “escapist” fiction is that sometimes stories set in another place or time allow me to look at my own circumstances or my own society with fresh eyes. For instance, The Chrysalids, which I just read, looks at racism and intolerance, but it’s about mutants rather than about races and ethnicities, yet all the same lessons apply.

    And I really do think there’s value in “pure” escapism as well. There are times when I really do need to put my own problems out of my head and think about something else. But that kind of escapism doesn’t exist in genre fiction alone. There’s realistic fiction that serves the same function for me. It just depends on the story.

  2. The argument could be made that ALL fiction is escapism. Even if you’re reading about ‘two people in a room getting a divorce’ you are still abandoning you life for theirs for the time that you are reading. It may not be a fun escape, but it’s an escape. And really, non-fiction too. During the time that I’m reading a history of Alexandria I’m not thinking of bills I have to pay or problems at work.
    I find most of the people who look down on genre fiction and ‘escapism’ have no problem watching Dancing With the Stars or Football, as if those are not ways of escaping the day to day world. It reminds me of the old saw about pornography. ‘What I like is erotica. What you like is pornography.’ Labels, be they genre, literary, escapism, or whatever are just ways that people try to put things into easily understandable categories and to make shelving easier at the bookstore and library. I pay them little mind.
    What I’m usually looking for from fiction is a story. I love stories. Jane Austen and Robert E. Howard, both of whom I love, tell stories worth reading. Ditto Raymond Chandler, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway, and Stephen King. If I learn something or come away with a deeper understanding of the human condition, great. But really, I want stories. Someone else can apply the labels. I’m too busy reading.

  3. “And perhaps that’s the inherent value of escapism: not avoiding your problems by hiding from them (which would be the detriment of escapism; everything has its good and bad side), but by being able to escape to another world where you can find solutions to your problems and be able to apply that to your own life.”

    This is a great point, and it’s pretty much what Diana Wynne Jones says in her essay collection Reflections. I really need to get around to reviewing that.

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