Tuesday, February 06, 2007

In Defense of Escapism

Ahh…here is another one of those great internet discussions, spilling over from message boards to blogs about an issue that’s been discussed to death. This time it seems to have started with M. John Harrison posting this about the sin of worldbuilding, it was followed up with some message board discussion at wotmania and ASOIF. Then Larry/Dylanfanatic/Freebird posted this blog, Pat at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist followed up with this entry with Gabe Chouinard responding here. And several others have weighed in as well.

Fine, I’ve said what I have to say about worldbuilding elsewhere, so this is not really a direct response to any of that above, just an extension of my reaction to that discussion.

For whatever reason, admitting that you read for any sort of escapism is akin to admitting you like country music, Nascar, Natural Lite beer, live in a trailer, etc. You are immediately regulated to being less intelligent of a reader and just not getting it. Suddenly, you are less than respectful.

Well, I read for escapism – it may be the biggest reason why I enjoy reading as much as I do. It’s almost certainly the biggest reason why such a large proportion of my reading is in speculative fiction.

Let’s face it – reality sucks a lot of the time. I spend 9, 10, sometimes 12+ hours, 5 days a week working. I like my job, but I won’t pretend that I’d keep working if I won the lottery. Beyond that, it’s hard not to take a cynical view of the world today – there’s terrorism, unnecessary war, an idiot running the most powerful country in the world, religious extremism, global warming, etc. If I allow it to sink in it’s hard to not get angry, depressed, and unhopeful. Then, when I get home it’s time to various chores and projects, and of course there are family relationships to deal with.

So when I get some free time I absolutely want to escape this reality and fully immerse myself in some alternate world. I don’t need much; I just crave something that is different from my perspective, something that might require a suspension of belief. Speculative fiction of all sorts is where I most often turn to for this. This is what I enjoy; this is my hobby.

Am I looking for cliché, epic fantasy that is pure escapism – usually not, but sometimes I am. I do enjoy books that contain depth – that are thematic, metaphorical, political, great statements on the human condition, etc. I also enjoy books that are just plain fun, while not being particularly deep. And yes, in almost all cases, escapism is still the biggest driving force behind my enjoyment of reading. Loosing myself in the story, the world, or the language – yes this is an escape.

For whatever reason, it’s assumed that if you read for escapism, you must be reading some 10-book series of epic fantasy, something that is poorly written, easy for others to dismiss. I don’t get this – I can escape just as easily into something by Jeff VanderMeer, Haruki Murakami, Graham Joyce, or Hal Duncan. Escapism equating to bad writing is fallacy.

Perhaps the issue starts in the way people define escapism differently from one another. Maybe people deny things in themselves and others. Maybe people are just different.

People read for lots of reasons. Denying that escapism is one of the biggest is a mistake – it should be embraced. Looking down on anyone for their own reasons for reading is horribly short-sighted. Look, if escapism is an evil word to you – fine, just don’t tell me how wrong I am for embracing it. I can accept that you read for reasons different than my own; can you do the same?

Edit: Gabe adds another post and Tobias Buckell jumps in (thanks for the link).

Edit 2: Dylanfantic/Larry/Freebird reflects some more - some interesting ideas to think on, but ultimately I'm not sure he 'gets' it.

Edit 3: I think I'll stop adding edits after this, but there is some great discussion on this happening at The Lotus Lyceum. Deep Genre offers something tangental to the issue, and The Lotus Lyceum discusses that also.


Brian Malone said...

Hey, I guess I'm 'others' and yes I'm already breaking my resolution. What I'm challenging on my blog is the recurring need to explain/defend/justify our particular brand of escapism. I love fantasy literature, love it, I revel in it and I don't view it as existing in some sort of ghetto. Anytime anyone asks what I read/write, I call it like it is: fantasy, pure and simple.

What do people read fiction for but to escape from reality? It's inherent in the nature of fiction. All fiction. So-called realism, postmodern, post-postmodern, whatever, it's all unreality. James Joyce wrote about imaginary people doing imaginary things in an imaginary place called Dublin that bears faint resemblance to any real world place at any particular time. It's all fiction, all made up, all lies.

So why do specfic people seem to have such a chip on our collective shoulder about outsiders callng us escapist. Screw them. Dude, I'm with you in the sense that I like what I like and if anyone else thinks I'm slumming then screw them. I just don't feel that it adds anything to validate what the outsiders think.

Anyway, just my two bits.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I agree with you on your escapism thoughts. I think part of the problem also lies with the assumption of what the word 'escapism' means. I think alot of people equate escapism with the kind of people who are so far out of reality that their whole lives are built around whatever science fiction/fantasy/comic obsession that they have. When I open a book, any book, I like to feel that I am going on a journey. That journey can be a deep, meaningful one or a trip to the beach. As long as I am enjoying the journey then the book is fulfilling its purpose. Also life is hard and it is nice to take a break and experience different things. I think people equate 'escapism' with weakness, as if one is less than stable if they have to read books, etc. to 'get away from it all'. I think that is all a ridiculous argument.

Those with just a hint of intelligence can point out books in all the genres, including science fiction and fantasy, that have had major impact on the world around us. It is the small minded that look at these genres and cannot see that there is a great deal of intelligent, thought-provoking works to devour. And there are many works that are just plain fun and those who try to make a person feel embarrassed or less than intelligent because they like those type of books should be ashamed of themselves and their snobbishness.

I also believe that a certain amount of escapism is necessary to maintain a healthy, balanced life and to contribute something positive to society. For me fantasy and science fiction fuels my dreams and inspires me to go beyond the daily grind and exercise creativity, nurture hope, and be a better person in the world.

Neth said...


Sometimes I don't know why I let myself get sucked into these discussions. I've debated this very subject with Larry/Dylanfantic/Freebird before, I've been on the receiving end of a Gabe rant - I can anticipate fairly well where discussions will go. We tend to disagree - though not nearly as much as it may seem.

Someday maybe I'll just chuckle and let debates like this go by.


Yes - so much of these debates really just boils down to semantics of some form or another. I'm sure what I call 'escapism' is quite a bit different from what others do.

Brian Malone said...

We debate these things because we care about them. Nothing wrong with that.

And no, I don't think that we disagree at all about caring for or being proud of what we do; we just have a different reaction to the accusation of "escapism."

For me, it's one thing when the charge comes from the outside, but quite another when we turn on our own. Pat quoted an earlier stab from Harrison, something to the effect of "it's not dignified to read for escape," with the idea being that devotees of the epic fantasy do just that. But instead of Pat saying 'nertz to you,Mr. Harrison, it's all escapism, Viriconium included', he has to defend his indulgence in escapism.

Now I respect Pat's vast knowledge of fantasy, but this sort of exchange just makes me cringe. Those who dismiss what we do as 'juvenile trash' can just sit back in smug self-congratulation while we beat each other bloody.

Anyway, I'm not saying that anyone else has to feel the same way that I do, but I'm just tired of seeing one specfic person accuse another of escapism.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I agree with you both, well said.


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