In defence of escapism

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Here’s my latest “Space-Time Continuum” column from Freelance, the newsletter of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild

Freelance May April 2014Back at Weyburn Junior High I was once taken to task by a teacher for not remembering the name of the author of a book I liked. “If you don’t remember the author’s name,” he told me, “you’re just reading for escape.” 

A few decades on, I recognize the glaring flaw in that statement: namely, what does remembering the author’s name have to do with the value of the book? Would War and Peace be any less a classic if I couldn’t remember it was written by Franz Kafka? (That’s a joke. I know it was really written by Jane Austen.) 

But what really bugged me about that teacher’s statement— and made it stick with me—was the whole looking-down-the-nose-through-pince-nez-glasses attitude it expressed toward the kind of books I was choosing to read: mostly (though not exclusively) science fiction and fantasy.

Discounting all fantastical fiction as “mere escapism” is hardly a new pastime. J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with it in his

classic essay “On Fairy Stories” (readily available online— read it!). Escapist literature is supposedly inherently inferior to “interpretive” literature (or just “literature,” if your interlocutor is snobbish enough, implying that the other does not even fall under that rubric), the former taking you out of the real world (thereby turning your attention away from all the weighty real-world issues you should be engaged with), while the latter supposedly plunges you deeper into the real world, ensuring that you remain outraged about all the things right-thinking people are supposed to spend their time being outraged about.

To which my first response is, “You’ve never actually read any fantastical fiction, have you?”

All stories involving human beings offer the author’s unique perspective on human nature. And all stories will likewise reflect the author’s unique perspective on the real world he or she inhabits.

Consider Tolkien. I’ve seen him derided for having a simplistic view of war, which, considering he fought in the Battle of the Somme and lost all of his closest friends in the war, is one of the more clueless statements I’ve ever run across. Tolkien wrote about a made-up world, a “secondary creation” in his terms, but his experiences and upbringing in the real world informed every aspect of the work, just as his devout Catholicism did.

It’s unavoidable. Authors may create fantastic worlds, but they inhabit the real world, and therefore every work of science fiction or fantasy they create, no matter how outlandish the made-up world of the story may seem, still draws on their understanding of and engagement with the real world, every bit as much as the work of an author who writes a piece of mimetic fiction which attempts to accurately depict the “real” world.

In that latter sentence, the key word is “attempts.” Because here’s the thing: every work of fiction is “escapist” in that it takes us out of the real world and puts us in a made-up world. Even the most “realistic” novel is still set in a made-up world. It may seem like the real world, but it really exists solely in the minds of the author and his/her readers.

I have another beef with the idea that “escapist” = “bad.” It seems to come from what can only be called a Puritanical 31  attitude among the self-appointed arbiters of what is good and what isn’t in the literary world. You see this Puritanism all the time. Every summer, some newspaper can be counted on to ask its readers, “What are your guilty reading pleasures?”

Inherent in that question is the idea that reading should be grimly focused on what the aforementioned arbiters consider Good For Us. After all, the thinking seems to be, how can you fully understand what a lousy world you live in and how unhappy you should be if you start reading purely for enjoyment? How can you feel properly outraged about this or that current social issue if you’re wasting your time exploring all of time and space?

Taken to its extreme, this produces the people who proudly proclaim they don’t read fiction at all. They prefer their literary vitamins in cod liver-oil form, taken straight up as weighty nonfiction tomes or the many blogs-of-perpetual-outrage. I’m sure it makes them feel righteous, just like the preacher I once heard proclaim that the only book he ever read, or anyone should read, was the Bible— but what a dreary existence!

As C.S. Lewis famously put it, the people who really hate escape are jailers. Don’t jail yourself, or let others jail you, by spurning the works of science fiction and fantasy that can take you farther out of yourself and your mundane reality than you’ve ever been before.

No, it’s not always comfortable in the cold reaches of space or the echoing halls of the haunted castles, amid the reek of dragon fire and rocket exhaust…but it’s exhilarating.

See you

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