“It is unfortunate to me that we have to classify reading fiction as anything other than what it is. Why must it be escaping “from” something? If it has to be escapism, aren’t we escaping “to” something? Does the distinction matter? I’m not sure.” Carl V. Anderson
“Escapism is a social practice and a cultural stereotype, not an inherent characteristic of the fantastic. It is an exaggeration of the word escape itself, which does not mean ‘to lose oneself in another world,’ but to elude something that constrains you.” from “The Inevitable Reduction of the Imagination and its Opportunities: A Brief Exploration“
The last time I wrote about escapism I was trying to get a better handle on the term and its implications. As a response to that column, Carl V. Anderson asked a very pertinent question about the literary idea of escape: what are we escaping to? I’ve thought about this on and off but it wasn’t until I read Foz Meadows’ article at A Dribble of Ink last week that something clicked in my thinking about this idea. Or, more to the point, altered my perspective on the dynamic aspect of this idea. Meadows’ piece starts slowly but builds to a very incisive conclusion:
“[T]he big schism in SFF [is] no more between left-wingers and right-wingers than it is between realists and escapists: rather, it’s between those for whom escapism is an extension of privilege, and those for whom escapism is a means of furthering representation. But even then, that’s far from being a binary position: there are many different kinds of privilege, after all, and in accordance with the principles of intersectionality, possessing one type of privilege doesn’t prevent one from lacking another. It’s simply a question of escapism: from what, into what, and above all, why.”
All too often the why is taken for granted as inseparable from the what of escapism, as if the motive for it was inherent and uncomplicated. Escapism is generally characterized and applied as common-sensically unproblematic and often caricatured as deviant or mesmerizing. Meadows’ discussion strips away some of this sensibility and asks us to examine both why we invoke escapism as we do and just what various readers might be doing with it other than escaping from the everyday. The homogenizing application of the term deflects a consideration of why by giving it the appearance of being self-evident. Meadows asserts that it is not, and that if we want to grasp what escapism does, we need to move past binary formations and look at what readers are actually doing when they “escape” through a story.
The usual definition of escapism as a method for leaving one’s reality behind (temporarily) is not even a useful starting point. Human beings constantly tell and re-tell the story of their actuality, while there are always factors that we cannot ignore or accommodate. “Escaping” into literature is just one application of a universal human cognitive practice. At an essential level it is no different than losing oneself in a math problem or daydreaming or planning a vacation. We spend a great deal of our time engaged in imagining things that are not present; literary escapism is one variation of this activity. What makes it distinctive is what we engage with and how we construct our distraction from the immanent world. The fact of departure is meaningless; where are we headed with our imagination?
Recently I was asked, as part of a job application, to discuss my favorite book and why it was important to me. I find this question hard to answer because I don’t have one “favorite book.” But I finally chose Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore and discussed the novel’s significance to me when I was younger and why I kept returning to it. Hank, the protagonist, represented someone I could sympathize with, but was also someone I struggled to engage with. The story of growing up, of trying to learn how the world works, resonated with me, while his bucolic, if somewhat post-apocalyptic, life wasn’t an alternate world I wanted to enter. The specter of nuclear destruction, as memory and promise, intensified both my ambivalence and my engagement with the story. I was not fleeing from the world by reading it, but trying to go somewhere where I could get a grip on the world.
Thinking about that response in light of Meadows’ idea, I now question what I was escaping to by re-reading that book. It was not a distraction from the world around me, but a mirror I could gaze into in a quiet corner. I saw someone that I could identify with (in terms of gender, sexuality, age, even racial and cultural elements) but who was also someone I wasn’t able to be: confident, well-adjusted, and in a way virile. He was not someone I could imagine being but he was someone who was undertaking a similar journey (when I first read the book after high school in 1984).
Contrast this with a simpler episode of escapism: reading stories of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. I encountered Howard’s dour barbarian a few years earlier, and at the start my need to read all of the stories (and all of those written by other authors) was nigh-obsessive. I could not identify with Conan in any way, and his brutal world was often unnerving to me, but I poured myself into these stories to enter a world so unlike the one around me that I could savor its dangers and horrors as inconsequential distractions. And yet, this was not the stereotypical escape experience either.
I could not, and refused to, imagine myself as Conan; I didn’t even like the character. But I could pretend that I had the potential to be like him in that world, to be able to defend myself, assert myself, take what I wanted, all things I could not do in my actual life. I could not get away from real life, but I could try to ease its toll on me by imagining that in some enchanted elsewhere things would be different, where the enemies were clearly indicated and could be defeated by raging violence. In some ways, I was aching for certain privileges: to be an adult, to be “a man,” to be able to solve my problems with the easy violence that TV, movies, comics, and books told me was possible and efficacious. I tried to project myself into that world and make an image of myself as these things, displacing Conan and being the hero myself, for the span of a tale.
Years later, that sort of escapism was embarrassing and painful to remember. In some ways, it had kept me going, but in other ways it had created foolish expectations. When I entered college I bumped up against my immaturities and needed to get some distance from them, to look at them from a different angle. Fortunately, my Study of Religion professor gave me a chance to do that by requiring me to read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. This book was one of my two alternate choices for “Favorite Book” (the third was Disch’s On Wings of Song) because it did so much to change my outlook on the world and what literature’s role in it was for me. Here, identification with the characters took a back seat to the strangeness of the story itself, to the ethereal quality of the story world, to the unfathomable philosophy of Sylvie and to Ruth’s struggle between conformity and freedom.
This novel challenged me to empathize with people not like me in many ways, and to acknowledge the difficulty of their lives while understanding the choices being created and foreclosed by that difficulty. It’s not an enormous leap, but there are a number of gaps the reader needs to cross to participate in the world of these women. There is a level of deep escapism in this novel because of its oddness and the actions of the characters; it is a novel that reveals the existential qualities of the desire to escape, which in this case is a halting stumble towards freedom. This is not an escapism of flight, but one of trying to find the place you need to be, of finding the conditions of existence that fit. The novel is about the hazards of being captured by elements of “the real world” and of figuring how where and what sanctuary is, not just in a story or in the world but within ourselves.
Escape always brings us back to ourselves. We might change or we might harden, but we can never get very far from ourselves. I think that Meadows’ discussion makes that point sharply. We can immerse ourselves in a book or movie or game and feel that we have somehow gone far away but we rarely do. To understand this idea of escapism, to understand how literature, fantastic or otherwise, is used by writer and reader, why escape is something we so often strive for, we have to start with the realization that no matter what journey we undertake it is still seen with our eyes, and can only take us as far as we are willing to go.