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Diversion and Immersion: Escapism and the Reading of Fantastika

“ESCAPISM: The desire to retreat into imaginative entertainment rather than deal with the stress, tedium, and daily problems of the mundane world.”

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

“Perhaps there is no way of escaping in art from one’s society, as any social product will of necessity embody the society’s values and pressures, and the less these values or pressures are confronted and examined in the work, the more in force they will be.”

I recently finished reading Thomas Ligotti’s Noctuary for review here at SF Signal, and as I sat in my bed, very late at night, I felt like a leaden statue that was levitating above my bed, impossibly unmoored from any comfort or connection to the world. My notebook computer was lying next to me, and the file that I had open to write down my reactions and thoughts was blank. I read the book in three sessions, which worked well since it is a collection, and each time I was so caught up in the reading, so harrowed and beguiled by the words, that I forgot to make any notes. I cannot think of many books that have had that effect on me, but as I sat there, still drifting but slowly feeling the pull of the world below me, I wondered why these words, this book, these stories had undone me so powerfully that I had a contradictory physical reaction of feeling cut off from the world but anchored deeply within my own skin. I had in some sense abandoned the world for a short time, but the question that came into my mind as I refamiliarized myself with my surroundings was: did I escape?

Escapism is the term generally employed to characterize the feelings of distraction and immersion that readers obtain from fiction, particularly genre fiction. It is a word that is used widely, and defined often, but almost always in an unexamined manner. While I have found definitions and brief discussions of the term in some books of literary terms and criticism, there are apparently no lengthy examinations of or reflections upon the concept. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy the term gets a single paragraph that discusses its disparaging aspects more than any substantial meaning of the word. The entry does note that “[i]t is a term, however, which more accurately describes the motives of the reader than the nature of what is read.” This is a key point, and one that gets obscured in the discussion of the experience of reading that the term tries to define.

Even when the term is taken more seriously, its negative connotations seem inescapable:

escapist: In literary criticism, it describes anything that allows audiences to immerse themselves in a fictional world, and ‘escape’ from reality. Popular entertainment (such as Hollywood movies) is often described and derided as escapist; in contrast, literature confronts truth and reality head-on. Most cultural critics would find this distinction simplistic…”

This simplicity arises partly from the off-hand usage of the term to signify a retreat from “the real world” to a fictional one. “Escapism” is not a critical term, nor is it a very precise descriptor; rather, it is a word employed as a slight or an invitation. It is not a matter of being, say, unsophisticated, but of being unclear and generalizing of an aspect of a very particular, often intensely experienced activity. In most of its formulations escapism and its cognates are defined vaguely, prejudicially, and with little elaboration, and thus say less about the act of reading than they do about judgments of taste and literary significance.

What’s strange about the most common usage of the word is its form: it is an “ism.” It is neither an act nor the desire to escape, but a belief or a style of engagement, a state with implications of passivity and unreason. It is not something that readers do, it is a condition that they willingly embrace. It is a release, a seduction, often an abrogation of reason that demeans a reader’s level of interaction with a text and even their choice of text. Brian Stableford’s brief discussion of the term in his The A-to-Z of Fantasy Literature endeavors to connect the idea to “literary” fictions and ideas, but despite a sympathetic treatment of the term his defense of the notion is passive and tentative. Whether it is invoked as an indictment or as a pastime it is at best Tolkien’s “escape of the prisoner” and at worst a succumbing to the temptation of the popular, banal, or sensational. But does this really capture the experience of escapism? Is escapism even a good way to define the effects and feelings that the term supposedly encompasses?

In its general usage “escapism” suffers from two deficiencies: it defines its subject poorly and imposes a value judgment on reading (as well as engagement with other media) that misrecognizes the fact that all fictions endeavor to create some sense of “escapism.” When we talk about escapism we are talking about the use of the human imagination to create a sense of dislocation and/or diversion from our immediate surroundings. This can happen with any work of fiction. I have been as enthralled by reading James Joyce or Virginia Woolf as I have been by Robert Heinlein or Octavia Butler.  Escapism is often associated with fantastic literature and with less “realistic” genres, but as Rosemary Jackson noted in the classic Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion “[a]ll imaginary activity if fantastic, all literary works are fantasies” (p. 13). Escapism does not just happen to someone who watches Star Wars: A New Hope for the fifteenth time or loses themselves in the latest Kim Harrison novel; whenever we elect to focus our attention away from our situation and into a medium of words we are making a choice to engage our imagination elsewhere.

The question is not whether we are trying to “escape” or not when we read fiction, but what sort of diversion we are selecting to give us a sense of displacement from the world we are in. I wrote about this in a previous column, and as I put it then:

“Fantasy is sometimes called the literature of escape, but that does not meant that it is the literature of running away. To engage in escapism (often amplified as “pure”) is to abandon the world for one that does nothing but blind you to reality. While that potential is present in the fantastic, it is not an effect of it. “The fantastic” doesn’t do that; we do with our decisions about how to engage the stories and ideas. 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.”

Escapism is an exaggeration of our cognitive and psychological ability to use stories imaginatively, not just to absorb them but to create an internal experience with them. The term is used to separate “good” interactions with fictions from bad ones, but takes that distinction to a hyperbolic extreme. Escapism presumes that certain types of stories, certain genres, draw us away from the world while others inform us about it. This is a ridiculous formation. If we consider the notion of escapism in light of how we read, it is possible to see that, as pointed out earlier, it is not the texts that somehow ensorcel us; we decide (sometimes consciously, sometimes unwittingly) to cast the text’s spell on our own mind and vision. It is our individual, cultured assumptions, aspirations, and needs that determine our level of diversion, the depth of our immersion. Texts create constraints and opportunities, but whatever escape we contrive comes from us as the reader.

As Joanna Russ noted, there is no complete escape; we can only create so much distance or sense of drift from “the real” because both the texts and our minds are cultural products with limitations.  Even the most invidious form of escapism can only take a reader so far from the world their body and senses anchor them in. Some readers may feel they touch that spirit that Tolkien extols, others may be desperately seeking a way to not return to the real world. Others may dip in and out of fictional worlds for a little relaxation, while others look for new routes that bring them back to that real world changed. What matters is how we choose to use our imagination, how we choose to inhabit whatever story we take in, and how we then return to that “real world” and re-inhabit it. Did I escape? Of course not. But perhaps I came back to the world a little different.

3 Comments on Diversion and Immersion: Escapism and the Reading of Fantastika

  1. Another reason, John, I think its an ism is that its a continuous, recurring, and reinventing act of escape, rather than a single “escape” from whatever. Its a process and every book for a reader who seeks escapism can potentially find someplace new to escape to.

  2. Jennifer Pelland – In Defense of the Unhappy Ending

  3. As you had mentioned him, I’d have to say that I am of the opinion of Tolkien on this one:

    “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

    I am not so much concerned about the lack of a good definition of “escapism” as I am about the idea that it does indeed cast dispersions on reading. On one hand you have authority figures, from parents and teachers on up, extolling the virtues of reading and then you have others, sometimes from the same walks of life, denigrating reading as “escapism”. In those instances you can hear the disdain in their words.

    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.

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