Responsible Escapism in Literature

One of the frustrating parts of being a reader is (as with a lot of parts of life) dealing with snobbery. This is a danger that takes a special and easily recognizable form when you read a lot of old books. There is the temptation to segregate the world into two spheres: those things which are worthy of notice, and those things which are not.

Of course, this leads to a number of answerless arguments: what is the purpose of literature? How do you recognize good literature? What makes literature a classic, as opposed to just a fun read? These questions are unanswerable, in part, because they're irrelevant. Literature, for most people, is like any form of art - it is worth experiencing if it makes us a better person. This can be in a little way (cheering up a bad day, for instance) or in a monumental way (changing one's outlook on life), but nonetheless, that's what literature is for. If Twilight improves you as a person, it's a good book, for you. If the Bible does nothing for you, it's a bad book for you (or, you're just not ready for it. On both ends of the spectrum, books change over time).

This isn't to preclude all arguments over whether literature is 'good'. If a book is good for two people, and out and out damaging for two billion people, then it's important for us to talk about that. If a book cheers up some people, but also subtly teaches misogny or racism, then there's a reason we have conversations and argue about it. But in the end, these conversations can't be inspired by exclusivity and a search for a canon. They have to, simply, be a kindness we do each other, helping each other avoid books that hurt us, and find books that make us better people. Anything that distracts us from that goal is damaging, in the end, to our search for happiness.

One of these damaging fallacies is the subtle snobbery against books that are 'escapist'. I hesitate even to write the book. My friends who are fans of 'genre' (another subtle slur word) literature probably growl and get their hackles up just hearing the word. Fantasy, mysteries, historical romances, these sorts of books, says the conventional wisdom, are books that have some mild value as simple entertainment, but they're 'just escapism' - they don't have any intrinsic worth, except as a way to wind down and escape. They are the sitcoms of books, says this wisdom.

Examine this for a moment, though: it rests on the assumption that 'escape' is 'just for fun'. That the only value in becoming someone, something, or somewhere else is that it lets one ignore one's problems for a bit. And, in my personal opinion, no assumption could be more wrong.

'Escape' (already a loaded, and probably inappropriate word) is one of the most ancient and beautiful traditions of creative endeavor. Think of it - escape is the ability to put one's mind somewhere else. 'Escape' is, the root of all our ideas of divinity. It is the schoolmaster of empathy and selflessness. It's one of the most natural forms of play and self-education. It's a powerful form of introspection, and used by psychologists and sociologists every day.  Putting one's self in someone else's place (real or imaginary) is at once playful, solemn, sacred, and benevolent, if done with the right spirit. (If you would like me to further justify any of these points, let me know - the essay was already getting a bit long).

But, nonetheless, we think of escape as the realm of children's literature. Something that we need when we are young, but that we cease to need when we age. But then, at the same time, we wonder why children are so much more openminded, so much quicker to learn and grow, so much more self-assured and powerfully vulnerable than grownups are. 'Mere' escapism is a vital part of our growth throughout our lives, not something that simply helps us figure out how to get to adulthood.

This week, at the GENIUS suggestion of my friend Nymeth, I read 'Emma', a Manga by Kaoru Mori about a Victorian maid and a rich young gentleman who fall in love. It was the most wonderful escape I've had in a very long time, and one that has, unmistakably, made me a better person for having read it. The story was amazingly, powerfully immersive, rich with detail, and with the ineffable sense of it being a truly different world, instead of simply a modern story set in dresses and gaslights.

And, from a 'literary' perspective, I can make my arguments. The artist/author is a careful student of symbolism and human nature, tiny subconscious clues suggesting depths to the individual characters that would have taken a book of Dickensian prose to suggest otherwise. The art in this (and this is from someone who doesn't always like the Manga art style) was beautiful, sweeping and echoing across the pages. This is the sort of book that a Bronte would write in different circumstances, and as someone who thinks of the Bronte as more akin to sisters and friends than favorite authors, that's the most sincere praise I can offer.

But to an extent, this misses the point - or more (because these elements are not ones I want to say aren't beautiful), it presumes that there is the important elements of the story, and then there's the ones that are just there to make it easy to read. Emma is very much an escapist book, and part of the appeal of the book for me was that I really, really wanted to be someone else for a little while. OF course, this could be a bad thing. This could mean I simply 'veg out' and read something useless and just pretend my problems don't exist for a while. Escapist reading (like any reading) can be a drug, and a very dangerous one.

But like many of the most beautiful of escapist books, Emma is both an honest and an ennobling experience, one that, instead of tricking you with a sense of false betterness, simply lets you stretch into a place you cannot normally be, to feel it's freedoms, and it's constraints, to let you play quietly with the pieces of you that resonate in the work, the pieces that otherwise atrophy, so that when they're needed they're too tired to stand. To, like the Greeks with their myths, stretch and figure the shards of the divine, by reflecting them off of the selves we choose to be, instead of simply the one life we live simply because of circumstance. That's what 'escapism' should be - the refreshing rites we play at naively as children, and that we practice with a whimsical solemn knowledge when we're grown.

(Image: Princess Hyacinth, by Alphonse Mucha. Incidentally, Mucha, one of my favorite artists, was a 'low artist' himself - painting everything from cigarette ads to theatre posters to advert calendars)


Amanda said...

Totally inadequate comment response here, but...I can't wait to read Emma now! ;P

Amy said...

This might be my favorite post of yours yet. Yes. You manage to put to words so many things I think and feel but have no expression for. And I obviously need to read Emma.

Emily said...

Excellent points, Jason. This is something I struggle with, something I go back and forth about how to articulate to myself. On the one hand I do think we need a word to talk about something really ugly in the world, which is that the entertainment machine creates flashy drivel to distract people, and also to propagate conformist ideas (as you mention - subtle racism/sexism/homophobia/militarism/etc.) Sometimes I use "escapist" to mean that - I don't intend it as a criticism of individuals who make the decision to consume these movies/books/tv shows, but of a system that creates them as intentional barriers to thoughtful critique.

On the other hand, I think your points are such good ones - escape, imagination, resting certain parts of oneself and developing others - those are all such important activities. I like your "does it make me a better person?" yardstick - that seems very helpful on a practical level. When I watch those movies or read those books I was talking about above, I usually end up feeling either empty, dirty, or angry. Whereas there are certainly escapist things in my life that leave me feeling rested, refreshed, and so on.

Excellent post!

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - yes, you do! I THINK, though I've been wrong before, that you'd really like it.

Ms Amy - I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think I commented on your blog not long ago that bothers me when having these convos is that people usually react to snobbery by reverse snobbery - by deriding 'high literature' as snooty and useless. I wish we could ALL just love what we love and be happy :)

Ms Emily - I agree with you that we produce too much trash in media - things that slake our lusts instead of filling our bellies as it were. I guess that's what I meant when I said books can be like drugs. I think it's worth pointing out, though, that the 'high arts' are just as guilty of this as the low arts - sometimes more so becase they try to affix a patina of legitimacy to their pandering. The problem is we get caught up in the arguments that ugliness peddlers WANT us to have - selfish bickering that leaves the obscenely profitable status quo where it is, instead of trying to understand each other. I'm WAY guilty of snobbery, is an easy trap to fall into, because it feels good to think of things as superior or inferior. I've been reading Plato, and it's really bothered me that he does the EXACT same thing - confused relationships and differences as heirarchies of superiority/inferiority. It seems to be a trap embedded in our nature :/.

Nymeth said...

"My friends who are fans of 'genre' (another subtle slur word) literature probably growl and get their hackles up just hearing the word."

Ha, yes, yes we do :P Like you said, it's just such a loaded term. I also resent the assumption that it's only "genre literature" that allows you to escape - that the process of stepping into the shows of another human being isn't the same be their story told realistically, historically, fantastically, you name it. It's the VERY same process, whatever the genre.

Maybe I sound like I'm arguing, but I'm not. I completely agree with everything you said.

Trapunto said...

Oh, excellent post. Beautifully expressed.

I haven't read much manga (I'd read a lot more if I didn't depend on my library system's collection as a source), but I'm an anime fancier, and I thought the animated version of Emma was everything you said! It was the the highlight of our last couple of year's anime-watching. All the little perceptive oddities in bringing a Japanese sensibility to bear on Victorian England made something delicate and wonderful. I could go on for paragraphs, but I'll spare you, since I'd be preaching to the choir!

*All* reading is escapist. People just have different escapes. Some people escape into poetry. Some people escape (my husband lately, boggling me!) into popular astronomy/cosmology. Some people escape into the classics cannon.

I think it boils down to folks having different requirements for suspension-of-disbelief and persistence-of-interest. For instance, the books i love the most are the ones that take typical genre forms and make them into something atypical: "elevate" them with complex characters and dense ideas and superlative writing. I don't get the same fix from the pulpier fantasy and sci-fi because I have a overactive cringe reflex for cliches and bad writing; and I like books to vary at least a little from books I've already read--a nugget of something original to this author's vision, and this story. I can't immerse myself if I find myself cringing, say, more than once every five pages. Not that I don't read pulpy stuff too; I just am very aware of having a cut-off point as far as enjoyment goes, then I drop the book and look for another. Some people can overlook things I can't. Other people simply can't overlook the things I can, like a few stock characters and the basic fantasy tropes. The only way I would hold this against them is if they dismiss a whole genre without really understanding what it can do--and then I would pity them, too, for all they are missing!

I guess my skin is thick. I don't worry about the "genre" stigma since I could put myself on both the dispensing and receiving end of snobbery if I liked. I don't like. It's silly. I'll happily argue the philosophical merits of Ursula Le Guin against Thomas Hardy any day. (Um, just let me brush up on my Thomas Hardy first, okay?) I read a lot of classics in my teens. I still read them, but often there isn't room in my life for the energy and concentration they require. I suspect this is a case for a lot of people.

Or maybe what the the snobs are saying is that a book's innate worth is proportionate to the labor required to absorb it? And they want credit for their hard work as readers?


Amanda said...

I agree with Ana when she says "I also resent the assumption that it's only "genre literature" that allows you to escape." It bothers me that people think I"m a snob because I don't like genre lit for the most part. It's just not what I like. I escape with classics. They help me relax my mind and go to a new place, and I don't see that there's anything wrong with that.

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Rebecca Reid said...

This is such a great post! I'd have to agree that all reading is escapist in some extent. That I enjoy the classics, and for me, whether or not something I read was "worthwhile" depends on what I got out of it -- and some books it's just the delight of the novel, not some deep meaning.

I am tired, thought, of people saying they feel guilty for only liking one genre (i.e. classics). Not that that's what you're saying. For me, reading Zola is somewhat escapist. Although I don't really like it... if that makes sense. I'm looking forward to finishing it this evening!!

PS Am also looking forward to reading Emma now! Although I'm terrified of reading a manga. I like my left to right reading...

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - No, you don't sound argumentative :). Yes, as with so many things, words are used as ways to belittle what one doesn't agree with. I wish I had a better word than 'escapism'. The best I can come up with is empathicism, which I'm not sure is really a word :D.

Ms Trapunto - I haven't read anything by Ms LeGuin, but I've heard she's very good. You and Ms Nymeth should tell me where to start :). I didn't even realize there WAS an animated of Emma. I'm kind of actually a complete ignorant on both the anime and manga fronts :). I read one other one earlier this month called 'After School Nightmare' which was also really interesting, so maybe I need more edgimacation.

Amanda - Yeah, the problem I get with classics is (not in the book blogging world as much, but in regular life) most people who want to talk to you about them are really wanting to have a conversation that boils down to 'god I'm so damned clever for reading old books.' Which is really sad, because I LOVE alot of those old books. :/

Ms Reid - You could probably read teh ENTIRETY of Emma in, maybe, a few hours. Tops. The left to right is confusing at first, but you get used to it. I'm sure there's STILL things I missed just 'cause I don't know manga and it's symbols and conventions well enough. But it was beautifully drawn. You're not liking Zola? You're reading L'Oeuvre, right?

Emily said...

So, I've been struggling with whether to write this, but here I am...Rebecca & Trapunto, you don't really find that ALL reading is escapist, do you? I agree that one CAN read for escapist purposes in any literary genre, but reading can also be so many other things. As important and nourishing as escape can sometimes be, reading can also be hard but rewarding work, can make us confront things about ourselves and grow/develop as people, can be a near-religious revelation that changes our lives for the better, can be challenging & thought-provoking and gloriously difficult, and I think all those things are so valuable IN ADDITION TO the value in just getting away in one's mind and resting for a bit. Right? I'm probably preaching to the choir here.

Emily said...

Oh, and PS to Jason: Yes, I agree that so-called "high" & "low" culture are equally culpable in disseminating bigotry. Sadly.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - I won't speak for Ms Trapunto or Ms Rebecca, by any stretch. But from MY point of view, the answer to your question depends on how you define escapism. I mean, to some extent, Mrs Dalloway, for instance, is a VERY pure form of escapism - one lives almost completely inside the skin of other people than one's self. Of course, this sort of escape does require hard work, but that doesn't mean it isn't an escape. Again, I think the problem is that escapism is a word tinged by it's usage, but I don't have a better word. I don't think escapism is relaxing, necessarily, at all. IT can be, sure - but then, so can a lot of things. Sometimes an 'escapist' book can take a LOT of hard work and dedication to make it through, and can be emotionally transformative, not simply a nice place to rest. Tender Morsels is one good example - it's very much an 'escape' into a fantasy world, in one sense. At the same time, you're escaping into a very painful, very human world, where very difficult things happen. And the world, itself, offers certain metaphorical power that wouldn't be there without the 'escape' into alternate-ness. 1984 is another example of this - it's very immersive, and at some level, really no different in technique than any other fantasy or science fiction novel, you know? Animal Farm is an even more extreme example. To 'escape' into something doesn't necessarily imply that it's something more comforting or pleasant than the 'real world', after all.

Nymeth said...

Okay, I've just deleted the long comment in response to Emily's I'd written because I read Jason's before hitting submit and he said everything I was going to say :P It really depends on how you define "escapism". I find ALL reading escapist in the sense that it allows me to escape the confines of my life, my individuality, and BE someone else for a moment. And that can indeed be "a near-religious revelation that changes our lives for the better, can be challenging & thought-provoking and gloriously difficult". I guess I just don't equate the term "escapism" with mindless entertainment, though I'm aware that that's how it's generally used. And now I'll shut up, because I've just written ANOTHER long comment that basically paraphrases Jason's :P Apologies.

Emily said...

Jason & Nymeth: Hmm. I guess I'm not totally able to embrace your definitions of escapism. To me a word *is* its usage, really - that's how language develops. In almost all usage "escapism" involves wanting to distract oneself from what must be endured in one's own life, rather than confronting it. Sometimes doing just that - taking some space/time away - is what we need for a while, to make us better people. But sometimes we need to confront those hard things, and I would argue that doing that is not escapism. Otherwise you're defining escapism so broadly that it's basically synonymous with "imagination" or "exploration."

I don't think "escapism" means "working as hard as you can to get to a different place." Political refugees who cast themselves adrift on a life raft in an attempt to gain asylum are escaping, but they're not being "escapist." So to me, while escapist literature needn't be mindless entertainment, I definitely wouldn't apply that label to a book that forces me to confront an uncomfortable attitude or emotional process I'd been attempting to avoid.

But I think if the semantics were different I could agree with both of you! (At least about reading fiction/nonfiction narratives, rather than philosophy or politics.) That's just not what "escapism" means to me. :-/

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - Man! Now I wish I hadn't respmded, 'cause I'm sure you'd have said it better than me.

Ms Emily - Okay. If that's the definition of escapism, I would agree that there are escapist experiences, and non-escapist experiences. I would be wary about calling any BOOK not escapist - for me, Les Miserables is VERY MUCH an escape, when I need it to be, for instance, because I have a relationship with it, but then for someone else it may be the opposite. Amanda escapes into 'The Hours', (movie, not book) for goodness sake.

That being said, there IS something that, say, my experience of a book like Mrs Dalloway has in common with my experience of, let's say, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the problem is it doesn't really HAVE a name - hence my appropriating escapism as having a FEELING similar to what these books do for me. Certain books, whether or not they allow me to indulge myself and escape from my own life, create a totality of experience that is immersive in a way many books are not. And it's not just that they're more imaginative, and it isn't that they're necessarily 'better' than a book that DOESN'T meet these criteria. My experience of, for instance, Portrait of an Artist was NOT the same - it was a reflexive experience, one that illuminates myself reflexively, instead. It was a wonderful book. But NOT the same experience I had with a book that creates an external life to live.

I think the problem with 'escapism' is that it isn't used to describe - it's used to categorize. It's used to say these are the books that actually change you, but these, these are just a nice break from life (as if a book can't be both, right?). Or, even worse, it's this is the GENRE that's just a nice escape from real life, or the medium, or the style, or the author, or whatever. There are books that are not written as effectively as others, and there are books written with specific purposes in mind. But, escapist is a label, now, not a descriptor, so it serves little purpose, it seems to me, in discourse - unless the word is repurposed. I DID, however, repurpose it pretty darned clumsily, you're right :D.

Trapunto said...

Emily, I've reread your comments and I think I see an part of your focus that I missed: mass-market books as part of the Mass-Media Machine. I missed it because I don't really come into contact with books in that way. I take care not to because it gives me the heebies!

I see I don't address people who read what advertising tells them to read; I'm assuming the kind of readers who actively develop their tastes over time--whatever those tastes may be--and look for what pleases/enlightens them instead of taking what's pushed on them by appealing to the worst in culture and human nature. I like your term "flashy drivel." So apt. I guess I wish the yucky books would just go away because I ignore them! It's a blind spot.

So, for me "escapism" covers any kind of escape *except* taking flight from our moral selves. I just call that reading crap.

Otherwise, like Jason and Nymeth, I'm a broad-definition escapist. Another example I was going to give in my first comment, then didn't, is of victims of abuse reading novels that have abused characters. Reading such books may be an effort, and just as horrible as what they suffer themselves, but since it is someone else doing the suffering, it can be the first step in the way out: that someone else can respond differently; that there are different outcomes. My grandpa was an infantry scout in WWII. For years he never talked about it at all, but watched WWII movies. It was an alternative to reliving his own war experiences. Eventually he opened up and reconnected with his division buddies, and even went back to the town he'd helped liberate in Holland, but I think he needed the movie-escape first, to get to there.

Rebecca Reid said...

Well, even when I pick up a history of Japan or a book of scripture at the end of a long day, it is because I'd like a break from other things: poopy diapers, etc. But I probably have to amend what I'm saying, Emily to go along with what your saying: reading a history of Japan is not "escapist" as reading a novel is. I guess it does go down to semantics. Some of those nonfiction books are hard to get through but I love reading them because I get so much out of them. And yet, it's a retreat from the rest of my life.

Emily said...

Thank you so much for all your replies, everyone! I think I understand better where you're all coming from now. I think we all agree at base, and that the issue is basically semantics about how we're defining "escapism."

Jason, I thought this:

"Certain books, whether or not they allow me to indulge myself and escape from my own life, create a totality of experience that is immersive in a way many books are not."

was very useful. I definitely understand what you're saying. Immersive is a great word for it (and yeah, I agree that Portrait of the Artist does NOT fit the criteria). Sometimes I feel like I, as a distinct being, am dissolved by a book, and other times I feel like I'm very much solid, sitting in my head dialoguing with a text. Two different experiences, neither one necessarily better or worse. Neither one necessarily involving a flight, fight, or rest vis-a-vis one's outside life. And the immersion, or lack thereof, lies in the reader's experience, not in the book itself - so it would be inaccurate to call Sense & Sensibility intrinsically immersive and Sound and the Fury (or whatever) intrinsically reflective, even if those are my experiences of them.

Anonymous said...

Mucha is one of my favourite artists as well. One of his works is actually going to be a tattoo that I get in the rather near future!

Funny enough about his work, he started painting "more serious" works later in life. The Slav Epic is what he's mostly famous for. I prefer the his beautiful women!

Anonymous said...

Jason, I've been thinking about the best Le Guin to start with, and I'm torn. I actually started a big general Le Guin post that I never finished, about the difference between her earlier work, middle work, and her recent books; and how surprised I am that most people are only exposed to her through her later work now. Maybe it's why she's not more widely revered!

I think for you, I would recommend starting with The Tombs of Atuan followed by A Wizard of Earthsea, like I did. I realize this is out of order, but it doesn't set up any spoilers, as the books are set in different locations with different main characters, and there are good reasons for it. Or if you'd rather start with a longer book, go with the Left Hand of Darkness. Just don't begin with anything after 1980. Not that those books aren't good, but its most enjoyable to follow her progression of thought through time.

It makes me so happy to think of someone having their first Le Guin ahead of them!

Jeanne said...

Coming late to this discussion, I have the advantage of building on what everyone else has said. One thing that strikes me is that no one has brought up a typical argument I hear from 18-20 year olds about why they like escapist fiction--by which they mean something easy to read--and why they don't like to read anything difficult, especially poetry.

My typical response is that some feelings and situations and people are so complicated that they can't be represented simply.

I read many different genres and think of it as like eating many different kinds of food. To be intellectually well-nourished, you need variety.

KD Sarge said...

I'm forty, Jeanne, and I like a book that's easy to read, so it's not only the young ones!

I've read and enjoyed tough books--Les Miserables, for example, and others that are SO worth the struggle to get through--but right now I work full time, am raising a 12yo as a single parent, and am trying to get a writing career of the ground. If a book makes me work--I'll probably just go take a nap! So those tougher books will be there for me when I have more energy for them.

The "escapist" label is something I struggled with a lot when I was beginning writing. I wanted to write the stuff I love--fun characters and magical places and Feats of Awesome and all--but I wanted to write meaningful as well. I thought I couldn't do both, but I looked to my own favorite books for answers and found them. Christopher Stasheff is one of my inspirations. In his Warlock series (starting with The Warlock in Spite of Himself) he suggests the idea of subversive teaching--dropping facts and history and philosophy into books that one would expect to be as escapist as it's possible to get--the series has both spaceships and magic! So I try to do the same, and also to escape the straight/white/cis pattern a bit.

I had something profound to say (I swear!) on the definition of escapism, but my daughter distracted me and I forgot it. I do remember it was about Aliens, my favorite movie, which is an example of how escape doesn't have to be to a good place to be effective!

Very interesting discussion, and I'll have to check out Emma. (Here because I searched "escapist literature," to see what came up since it's the title of my site.)