The Great Escapism

I’ve never liked calling fantasy ‘escapism’, because in constituting real life as something to be escaped, it makes reading fantasy into a kind of running away, something people only do because they’re afraid, and it isn’t that.

You wouldn’t say that everyone who travels does so because they’re fleeing their homeland, would you? Not just because they want their experience to expand a bit beyond the narrow box of their birthplace.  And if Fantasy can take your mind even further afield, to countries where your body could never follow, places that are stranger and wilder than the familiar bus-stops and supermarkets and offices of realistic fiction, then it seems to me it demands a little more courage from its readers, not less.

10 comments

  1. Gav

    Is SF ‘exploratory’ if Fantasy is ‘escapist’?

    One reason fantasy can be seen as ‘escapism’ is because of length – GRRM, Wheel of Time, Brendon Sanderson, Tolkien all write some bricks-sized novels. Even earlier Mieville – you can’t not read them and not escape for a long period of time into another world.

    • Tom

      Hey Gav!

      Escape though? Or just, you know, visit? Escape has a very specific connotation – that where you’re escaping *from* is much more significant than where you’re escaping *to*. The main qualification of the destination is it’s not the origin.

      • Gav

        People ‘escape’ their commute, disappear into a different world during breaks and lunches – I hear what you’re saying about escapism implies unhappiness in the lives of the reader – but I think it’s more about escaping reality, which is only something you can pin on fantasy as SF is potentially real (super loosely you’ll never get dragons but you might get genetically created dragons). Historical, crime, lit-fic all claim a stake on reality (obviously being all made up has nothing to do with it but possibly of being ‘real’ does).

        • Tom

          Ha, the plausibility of SF content is a whole nother bag o’ squid. Dragons, after all, aren’t ruled out by our best confirmed scientific theories the way, say, faster-than-light travel is. :)

          I see what you mean about escaping reality, but I can’t help feel that the term plays into the hands of people who want to dismiss fantasy as ‘only escapism’ for readers who don’t have the guts to face stories that will make them think.

  2. Katrina

    I don’t think “escape” has a negative connotation in terms of books. As a reader (and writer), I pick certain books specifically to escape reality for a little while – and those aren’t always SF/F. Real life is hard; fiction makes it a little easier for me. I come back to “reality” with a refreshed perspective.

  3. Lisa

    It seems (at least to me) that the people I hear using ‘escapist’ most often, and especially in that kind-of negative way, are people who don’t read fantasy/don’t read as avidly as anyone who might understand this distinction. ;-)

  4. Tom

    Hey folks, thanks for swinging by

    @Katrina – I totally agree that fiction can refresh you. I also, if I’m honest, think it’s all pretty much unavoidably about ‘the real world’ in one mediated way or another, but sometimes I hear F dismisses as ‘escapist fluff’ and I’m always like: ‘why?’

    @Lisa – Almost certainly true. :)

  5. Max Edwards

    Interesting this.

    An scholarly article I recently read on YA literatuere claimed ‘‘[t]here are three components necessary for young adult literature … to truly speak for young people. The first of these is that the novel needs to be a mirror of society and the self.’

    However, this severely limits what can ‘truly speak for young people’ – to truly speak to young me, the novel needs to be a mirror of *my* society and *my* self; white, British, middle class, male. Any child growing up experiences their own personal societal values that are going to be inherently different to another growing up amongst a different class, a different race, a different place, a different sexuality.

    So we add the fantastic to the mix. The inherently unrealistic. To me this is the idea of escape. By placing the action, plot, conflict in a setting that is overtly unrealistic in some essential facet, the speculative novel is able to gain the reader’s trust that its characters will act, and feel, realistically. After all, they are the closest connection to the reader herself in such a world. Thus we have ‘escape’ – ‘escape’ from the boundaries that realism necessarily places on a text, to somewhere where we can empathise no matter how different the subject is to us, perhaps more so than a ‘realistic’ novel.

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