I have a few friends who say they’re backing away from writing, reading, or posting about what they call escapist fiction, because they feel world events are such that they have no right to be indulging in, or promoting, anything so frivolous.
They have a right to their view and their feelings. For my part, I don’t feel that way.
Why is it bad to escape?
We know, from the tone and context in which the term is used, that escapist fiction is a bad thing. But we don’t know why. Fiction, by its nature, permits the reader to leave their everyday world and enter a different reality, a world where events have some kind of structure and resolution. The qualifier ‘escapist’ at least implies that the fictional world will be different from the real world in that the resolution will be pleasing to the reader.
Escape has social, emotional, and health benefits, which is why we take weekends and holidays; why we go for a walk in a park or along a beach. If we need a break, we tend to do something that we find refreshing. Escape helps us return fit and ready for whatever life throws at us.
I have spent much of my life with ill health, and have at the same time been through the usual curve balls life throws at us (children with disabilities, financial downturns, betrayals by friends and family). Yes, fiction has always been my escape—an opportunity for a micro holiday someplace where whatever was happening wasn’t real, and I wasn’t the one who had to fix it.
No. Escape in itself is not a bad thing.
I was one of those young people told to stop reading rubbish and spend my time with worthwhile books, by which my mentors meant the classics or the earnest works of the current literary mavens. Leaving aside the fact that many of the classics were regarded as escapist in their day, what exactly do the critics consider escapist?
The following table is adapted from a university source.
|Escapist fiction||Literary fiction|
|Designed to entertain||Designed to make the reader think|
|Simplistic, predictable, and often linear plots||More complicated plots, often non-linear|
|Clear unambiguous endings, usually happy||Ambiguous or unhappy endings|
|Simplistic, predicatable, flat characters||Characters are more rounded, and neither wholly good nor wholly bad|
|Moral to the story is obvious and often cliched||Moral may be non-existent|
|Plot driven, that is, the emphasis is on action rather than character||Character driven, that is, the emphasis is on character development rather than action|
|Plot is the primary focus, with characters merely players in the action||Plot is merely an aid to showing character|
It’s a continuum, with books defined by these two columns at opposite ends. It should be easy to see that much genre fiction fits more to the literary end of the scale than the escapist. Some of the great works of the 20th Century were speculative fiction works like The Word for World is Forest and The Handmaid’s Tale. No open-minded person reading Grace Burrowes’ Captive Hearts series would deny that it ticks most of the boxes on the right side.
But leaving that all aside, what in any of that list makes one book less escapist than another? I just don’t buy the basic idea that a book that shows ‘realism’ (by which the critics appear to mean one that mirrors the worst of the world) is somehow less worthy than one offering an adventure or a romance.
Is literary fiction better for us?
You can keep your ‘shoulds’, but even if I admitted the point (which I don’t), the great writers of genre fiction show us that escape doesn’t mean denying or avoiding real life issues. Rather, it means packaging them in a way that helps readers to understand them. In fiction, we walk a mile in another person’s shoes, see the world through their eyes, feel what they feel, and come back into our own lives changed by the experience.
Fiction at its best provides both an escape and a way to understand, and perhaps improve, our reality.
Of all the genres, romance attracts the most censure. I’ve written about why I think this might be, and I think it a shame. Jane Austen’s books are widely recognised as literary (though not in her day), yet her modern successors, who also write about human character as developed in the crucible of a developing intimate relationship, are derided.
I don’t write escapist fiction, but I do write refreshment fiction
Looking down the list above, I’d say my books ignore the two extremes, which is not surprising. I’ve been a fence-sitter all my life. My stories are designed to both entertain and make people think. They generally have complicated plots and happy endings (though not necessarily happy for everyone). The plot is full of action, but exists to show the characters of my protagonists, and the development of those characters is the key point of the story. The characters are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and my stories do have a moral.
So not escapist according to the definition above, nor entirely literary. But it is what I do and what I will continue to do. And it is my devout hope that readers will escape into my worlds, take a holiday from their real life, and returned refreshed and maybe armed with some strategies and understandings that will serve them well in the future.