Is fantasy really escapism?

Of course it is, but is it the most escapist? A recent blog post by Anne Hamilton (which was part of Helen Lowe’s blog tour for the launch of The Heir Of Night) got me thinking about this subject again. In that post, Anne says:

When I was growing up, SFF was generally derided as ‘escapist’. I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘realistic’ fiction is far more deserving of that title. It’s ephemeral and transient, rarely lasting to the end of a decade. It doesn’t transcend its own culture or time or deal with anything beyond the superficial. However the best of SFF – fantasy, in particular – engages in a struggle with name and thus with identity and destiny.

That’s a great quote. But how accurate is she? I’d suggest that she’s revealed a rarely considered truth.

She says that non-genre fiction, or ‘realistic’ fiction as she calls it, is “ephemeral and transient, rarely lasting to the end of a decade”. It’s true that non-genre fiction, slice of life stories, often date very quickly. But I dispute that that makes them any less relevant. Take a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee as an example. That book is a masterpiece, a beautifully crafted story with fantastic characters. Pretty much everything about it is still relevant today and it explores some very important concepts. I don’t think a book like that is transient or short lived. I do think it’s escapism though, however much it makes us look at ourselves and question how we might react in a similar situation.

Other non-genre work might date and age more quickly, becoming largely irrelevant beyond an interesting peek into days gone by. Science fiction, however, is way more likely to date very quickly. At the speed of technological advancement we’re currently experiencing, you can start writing a sci-fi novel and the concept is no longer sci-fi by the time you type “The End”.

So why am I suggesting that Anne Hamilton is right? Most non-genre fiction is looking at the trials and tribulations of people whose lives are very similar to our own. They live in the same world, the same time, more or less, and have similar concerns. When we read about those lives it’s pure escapism because those people aren’t us. We might wonder what we’d do in a similar situation, but that’s about it.

When you start to look at SFF, particularly fantasy, you open up doors not available in contemporary non-genre fiction. You get to explore the human condition within a mythic framework where anything goes. As much as stories like this are the wildest kind of escapism, they also serve to hold a mirror up to humanity as a whole. While a story about a white suburban family’s social wranglings might make a white suburban reader consider their own life, a good science fiction story will make us consider humanity as a species. Good SFF takes us on a journey not only of personal exploration but beyond ourselves to our culture and identity.

Of course, non-genre fiction can do these things too, but nothing does it so well or with as much scope as SFF.

Ever since people could speak they told stories. Stories about real people was gossip. Stories about life were myths. Myths are the original fantasy epics. Every race has its creation myths – these great mysterious stories from beyond the human, trying to answer the massive questions about why we’re here and where we come from. Of course, just because we can ask those questions doesn’t mean there’s an answer. Religion is built on the concept that there’s an answer for every question we can ask, and there’s nothing more human than that kind of arrogance. And religion is just where people take a lucky dip of all the great myths and decide completely arbitrarily (though usually by birth) that one is the absolute truth while all the others are funny stories. Which is astounding. But I digress.

With mythology we can escape the boundaries of real life and explore those great big questions far more deeply than we ever can with non-genre fiction. That’s what makes non-genre stuff pure escapism while fantasy is much more. SFF often addresses far bigger questions and concerns than non-genre fiction ever does. Of course, the lines are very blurred and all fiction is escapism. Good fiction is escapism that makes you think. Nothing makes you think more, in my opinion, than good SFF. As Anne Hamilton said, it “engages in a struggle with name and thus with identity and destiny”.

Caveat: I know this is likely to be a fairly contentious post, with people citing many examples to back up one side of the argument or the other. Most arguments find their truths somewhere in the middle, but bring it on. Leave your comments with your thoughts. I’ve written this with a purely rambling mind while I thought about the subject and I’m very open to others’ thoughts on it.

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18 thoughts on “Is fantasy really escapism?

  1. Although not a SFF writer myself, I put myself on the non-genre category, I enjoy reading good science fiction. I find that I am engaged with stories that examine aspects of the human condition in a created world that looks like ours but is also other-worldly.
    I remember reading my first Asimov story and being astonished at the moral complexities explored. The same applied to ‘War of the Worlds.’ Also, there are texts, like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ that have a life beyond their milieu and application in other ages and decades.
    I like the distinction you make in regards to ‘escapism.’
    It makes me a kind of a fence-sitter, but the distinctions you have raised are very clear and well presented. I’ll take stories from both genres.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  2. Dave – good idea!

    Adam – Thanks for the comments. I remember my early SF reading too, and being blown away by the scope of stuff explored, especially the moral conundrums addressed.

  3. I guess most fiction is some form of escapism (not used pejoratively). Chick lit may be a form of social escapism, historical fiction temporal escapism and so forth. As for ephemeral and transient, I think this is true of about 95% of works within any type of fiction — the very special works tend to live on regardless of genre.

    Also I don’t see how TKAM is escapist?

    Finally, genre fiction often gets a pass for not being a “slice of ordinary life” and yet it’s written within a particular decade and can often show the social conventions of the time it was written just as much as non-genre fiction.

  4. True that genre fiction can show its temporality sometimes, but I’d class that as not very good genre fiction. The really good stuff is timeless.

  5. Someone posted a comment on my LiveJournal (where all these posts are duplicated) saying that Ursula Le Guin has been addressing this subject for years. In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore she talks about exactly this concept of escapism in fantasy. Read it here.

  6. I think we’re talking about different things. A small % of works are timeless regardless of genre in that they continue to be relevant (eg. TKAM and many SFF classics). However I still think all of them are dated in the sense of showing their age and specific social context — I don’t see how being part of a genre can make a work immune from this since the writer is writing within a context and the things that they would not have even considered in their wildest worldbuilding efforts may become a given for all works just a few decades later.

    As for escapism, how are the great non-genre works (ie. that are still relevant and beloved today) more escapist?

  7. I think that’s the point – really good SFF worldbuilding transcends the social norms of any given time of writing.

    As for the last question, that’s kinda what the post was all about it. You read it, right? 🙂 I think that SFF asks way bigger questions, makes people think a lot more. Therefore non-genre stuff is more escapist as it’s less challenging. And I recognise the massive generalisations going on here!

  8. I think some examples will make it clear. I think that you cannot name a SFF masterpiece that does NOT show an aged social context in the same way non-SFF masterpieces do. Of course since it will be me responding to any example the cards are slightly stacked but still…

    On the non-escapism I was specifically talking about To Kill a Mockingbird since that was your example of a non-SFF that’s escapist despite being a timeless masterpiece. I just don’t see how it’s escapist at all.

  9. It’s a story where there are no great questions to consider, therefore it’s pure escapism into a situation that we could picture ourselves in but which doesn’t challenge the greater questions. It’s a blurry line!

  10. Well you said this was contentious so looks like you’ve “won” yourself an argument. I think by escapism most people mean reading works that get you away from the issues you are facing in daily life. If someone is a professional boxer, reading a novel about boxing in ancient Greece or 30th century Pluto will not be escapist in this dimension (they may be escapist across other dimensions).

    If you agree with this, I can’t believe anyone would consider a novel that is about issues that people faced in daily life when it was written (and still face today) to be more escapist than a novel that has little to do with daily life. The SFF novel may have deeper questions but that’s a separate point. Also, any novel with good characterisation will get us to consider how we’ll react in the same situation, SFF included.

    As for TKAM not having greater questions to consider, are we talking about the same book? The greatness of a question isn’t dependent on how far away it is from our daily experience.

    Sincerely, IMHO, “someone’s wrong on the internet” etc etc

  11. Someone’s always wrong on the internet! Rather than enter into the argument I “won”, I’ll see if anyone else wants to step in, as we risk getting into a circular debate here…

    Anyone?

  12. “The tendency to escape from daily reality or routine by indulging in daydreaming, fantasy, or entertainment.”

    I think that what makes something escapist is the consumer. There is a difference between reading something to be entertained and immersing yourself in something to get away from what’s going on in your life.

    Alcohol is an easier illustration of this. Most people use alcohol purely for recreation, to enhance an evening and maybe to have the joy of discovering a traffic cone in the house the next day. Some people use alcohol to blot out what’s going on in there lives. Same product, same effect, different application.

    Some markets actively exploit escapist tendencies. In the last couple of years, while the financial situation has been grim, there has been an upturn in the number of horror movies on general release and attendance to these movies is up too. With a horror movie you are highly unlikely to go watch it to learn some great life lesson. It’s much closer to being “I may be having trouble paying the mortgage, but at least I’m not being hacked to pieces by a guy in a hockey mask.”

    So, if everything is cool in your life, you are probably just reading for entertainment, but if there are aspects of your life that are unsatisfactory or even downright terrible, you are probably indulging in escapism to some degree.

    In that context, everything is escapist for someone. SFF may be a purer form of escapism in that it is often presenting something so far removed from the reader’s reality. On the other hand a Biography could be escapist by showing the reader the difficult of another or even allowing them to fantasise about what their life might have been.

    Is TKAMB escapist? Probably less so today as most reader will come to it as a classic they think they should read (and they should), but when it was originally released? I think it would have been escapism for many.

  13. I believe that any and all reading, besides the news, is escapism. I think well written fantasy is the least of all. Well written fantasy will make you question yourself about your life, your ideas; and it does it a non-threatening way, going out of the ‘normal’ world to explain concepts of the human condition.

    It has been said that the best way to acquire self-knowledge is to becaume the observer of your own life, thoughts, habits and relationships. That’s exactly what well written fantasy does, it takes you way out into another world and forces you to look down at yourself. Of course, some of this psychological principle will go unnoticed by the readers.

    I would bet that Laurell K. Hamilton has changed a lot more minds about accepting differences and sexual taboos than any group of people dedicated to do just that have.

    Good fantasy makes us escape so we can be brought back into our lives a better person, or, at least, a person with better self-knowledge.

  14. Graham – interesting thoughts, thanks! I think you’re right, that the nature of escapism is dependent on the reader. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the state of things and the rise of horror movies. The previous great glut of horror was in the 80s. ‘Nuff said.

    Martyne – Certainly all reading is escapism, even the news. If it’s not happening to you, then reading about it is a form of escapism to some degree. Question is, whether it’s just escapism, or offers something more.

  15. For me it is all about authenticity: regardless of whether the scenario is ‘realistic’ or ‘speculative’, if the situations the protagonists contend with draw out authentic emotional responses, then I think readers will be engaged ‘beyond genre’, regardless of whether it it is specfic genre or contemporary literary etc So Harper Lee continues to speak to us as readers because of that authenticity and so, too, does Le Guin.

  16. Thanks for dropping by Helen. You’ve hit a very salient point – “if the situations the protagonists contend with draw out authentic emotional responses, then I think readers will be engaged ‘beyond genre’”

    I suppose the question still remains, does engaged equal escapism, or is there more or less to being engaged?

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