Friday, December 14, 2012

On Escapism

Part of a series on defining terms.

I occasionally enjoy the offerings on Longform, a site that collects longer pieces of journalism which the editors find particularly interesting, and for the most part, I agree. But recently, they featured a piece by Joe Queenan about being an avid reader which opened with this statement:
“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.”
As an assertion, I find it both absurd and insulting. Yet it's something I have heard before, particularly in reference to genre works like sci fi or fantasy, where the term 'escapism' is likely to rear its head. It's a loaded word, to be certain--which makes it important to define precisely what we mean by it, and why it has nothing to do with why I read.

Now, if we break down the structure, 'escapism' must mean 'the way of escape': an avoidant habit of moving away from something. As Mr. Queenan points out, in the case of books, the reader seeks to escape reality itself. So, the first and most important point is that 'escapist' is not the same as 'pleasurable'--it doesn't simply mean something we might find interesting. After all, there are plenty of fascinating, enjoyable activities that do not necessarily lead us away from real life. Studying mathematics, the sciences, the human mind, or history can all enrich our understanding of the world, not drawing us away from life, but leading us toward it. They increase our knowledge and our understanding so that, when our studies end and we return to the world, we see it in a new way.

Certainly it is possible to do as Kant did, to take the study of a subject like mathematics and make from it something so insular, so divorced from any actual life experience that it becomes an escape from the world, but fundamentally, the reason we developed math and philosophy in the first place was due to our curiosity, our sense of wonder--not to avoid the world, but to come closer to it.

No, not that kind of 'time killer'
So to fit the definition of 'escapist', a book cannot renew our curiosity or increase our understanding, because then, it would have to point toward the realities our world--not away from them. An escape must take us wholly away, ignoring reality, or perverting it into something simplistic and easy to digest. An escapist book is a time killer, something we can sit down with for a few hours and, when we finish, find that nothing has changed: we have received no new ideas or understanding.

To me, the most pure definition of an escapist activity is one which you come away from no different than when you started it, except that you are a few hours older. It does not give you a sense of wonder or a newfound respect for the world around you, it does not make you question yourself, nor does it surprise you (though it might startle). In short, it is nothing more than a trusty method by which to waste away the hours of life.

I often hear people try to defend a book or show by saying 'You don't understand, when I get home at night, I'm so miserable and exhausted that this is all I can do to get by. I can't think or be critical or take in new information, I just want something that takes me away from all that.' But of course, that's not saying how good the book is, it's just saying how bad their life is. We all have difficult times, when we feel low and don't know what to do, and there are many responses we might make to that, but not all of them are good: some people cut themselves, some head to the internet to make death threats at strangers, some get blackout drunk.

What do you put in your head?
Just because people use these coping mechanisms does not make them good, or productive--none are a solution to problems in life, they don't make things any better. Indeed, such behaviors as these tend to ensure that the person's life will stay the same indefinitely, or become gradually worse--and there are many such 'opiates of the masses', including some books, television shows, and films. Of course, we all have our own way of coping--my point here isn't that we can all do away with these bad habits completely and live 'pure lives', but that it's important to recognize what we spend our time on, and why. In that sense, escapism is just the symptom of a larger life problem that isn't being dealt with.

What makes a piece of entertainment fundamentally escapist is that it confirms the viewer's biases, it panders to them, it provides them with bland comforts, it does not force them to think or to experience something new. It's an isolating experience, reinforcing what a person already thinks about the world, and cutting them off from others. One can even do this with opinions one despises, as long as that opinion is expressed in a stupid enough way that it makes you feel justified for rejecting it. A liberal can easily get this kind of self-assurance by listening to Rush Limbaugh.

But avoiding escapism doesn't mean giving up on fiction and only reading math and science. After all, the grand purpose of art throughout the ages has been to help us better understand the world and humanity. It also doesn't mean abandoning 'fun books' and reading only 'serious literature'--because there are plenty of adventure stories that are surprisingly insightful, and plenty of serious novels that are disappointingly flat and simplistic. Even in the cases of science fiction or fantasy, the purpose is rarely to while away the time--instead, we are asked to look at and question reality, to use thought experiments to dissect our own assumptions, and not to take for granted the apparent nature of things around us. 1984 may be a book of fiction about a future world (now passed) of the imagination, but it is still fundamentally a book about history, morality, politics, and the very human experience. It does not let us escape the world, but forces us to confront it.

'Not to be Reproduced' by Rene Magritte
Even something like Surrealism, or Absurdism can help us learn about the world. The entire point of the Surrealist movement was not to be unreal but to be more than real--that by taking the world around us and expanding it through our art (making it more extreme, placing apparently contradictory things alongside one another) it forces us to take a hard look at our own reality, and ask difficult questions about bias and the limits of human perception. It wasn't just a bunch of guys being wacky in order to avoid real life, they were trying to push the boundaries of how we thought about the world around us.

Now, you might say that no matter what art we make, no matter what subject it takes, it is always, in some way, talking about the world--which would mean that an 'escapist work' (as I define it) could not even exist. But it is possible to make a piece of art which so closely accords with our assumptions and current cultural values that it tells you nothing you don't already know, and hence serves only to comfort and to justify prejudice. It's also possible to make a work that is so twisted up in propaganda, ideals, and easy answers that while it may seem profound to the uninitiated, its really nothing more than tautology and thought-terminating cliche. Many people enjoy works like these, because as human beings, we like to be told we're right, we like to read things that agree with us, we like to imagine that we are thinking deep thoughts, especially when we are not--as Harlan Ellison said:

"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you."

Such constant confirmation can even become addicting--it's appealing precisely because it is naive and narcissistic--but any person who would rather make excuses for their own ignorance rather than learn how to overcome it is a wretch. Such people make the world a worse place for themselves, and for everyone around them--and when I hear Queenan say that, at some level, he finds reality to be a bit of a disappointment, what I hear is that he is the sort of person who makes reality a little worse for all of us.

Sure, the world is full of horrible things: death and torture and disaster, tragedy and loss of purpose and an endless search for meaning that will never be complete--but it's also full of joy and wonder, of staggering works of art, natural formations sublime to behold, kind people, and loving people, and laughter, and dancing. Taken all together, the world is neither good nor bad, it's a wonderful mess, and in the end, it's nothing more than what you decide to make of it.

What a totally sucky, disappointing world.
So when someone says the world is too depressing or disappointing, all I hear is the whining voice of a naive teenager who is throwing a tantrum because their parents didn't get them a new iphone. If your world sucks, maybe it's because of the decisions you've made, or maybe it doesn't suck at all and you're just looking for an excuse to make things about you.

It's just so misanthropic, so hateful to your fellow man to say "reality doesn't cater to me enough, so I read books that let me pretend that things revolve around me". Yet it's also spiteful to the self, because to love yourself means to grow, to learn and understand and make life better--and subsisting on escapism just means maintaining yourself in the same comfortable ignorance because change is scary (which certainly, it can be).

Anyone who thinks ignorance is bliss has never worked in retail, because once you do, it's immediately clear that being ignorant makes everything around you confusing and threatening. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a customer say "No, I don't want your discount card, stop trying to cheat me!" or "I don't care if it's buy-one-get-one, I'm not buying another one, so stop trying to steal my money" or "Just get one from the back, I know you keep more back there". For these people, the world is clearly a place of paranoia, where everyone is trying to cheat them, and since they are too stupid to be able to figure out the actual cheats, their only option is to constantly treat everything with suspicion and contempt.

And that's the danger of escapism: that it allows a person to revel in their own ignorance until they are blind to anything else. They don't know that the real reason they are miserable is because they are actively making themselves that way, every day; or that they might be making things worse for others, or that the only reason the world seems terrible is because they're too afraid to find the good in it. And that's why, to me, 'escapism' is nothing less than the willing death of the mind, of deciding that it's easier to just decide that the world as disappointing and then avoid it, never searching out its beauty--all so, in the end, they can sit back smugly and say "see, it's just as bad as I said".

Meanwhile I'll be out there with joy and the passion for knowledge, seeking my way in a beautiful, mixed-up world that is always proving me wrong, making me laugh, and love, and sing, and now and again, giving me reason to contemplate the deep-seated mental malfunctions that cause people to deliberately avoid living their own life. Certainly, we all run up against difficult times, we all grow tired, and frustrated--I'm hardly a stranger to depression, anxiety, and fear--but it's what we decided to do at those lowest points that makes all the difference. So, when you reach that nadir, it's up to you: will you choose something pleasurable and intriguing, that pulls you up out of the doldrums and helps you look at the world in a new way? Or will you choose to wallow in something avoidant, that feeds into those same insecurities and short-sighted prejudices that made you miserable and hopeless in the first place? The choice is yours to make.


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  2. Part 1

    So to me, for something to fit the definition of 'escapist', it cannot renew our curiosity or increase our understanding, because to do so, it would have to point toward the realities our world, not away from them. Hence, an escape must take us wholly away, ignoring the world or perverting it into something simplistic and easy to digest. An escapist book is a time killer, something we can sit down with for hours and, when finish, find that nothing has changed: we have received no new ideas or understanding.

    This I believe is where you err quite a bit. Fundamentally in fact. You're taking your own life and your own expectations and assume that they are the same for everyone.

    There are at least two points to this.

    You seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that for some people life is dreary, a drudgery which has few or even no joys, something which has to be endured. Something also not particularly enjoyed which ends with death, a death some may wish to come sooner rather than later.

    No, it is not always possible - as you appear to suggest - to pull oneself out of this simply by one's own hair the way Munchausen did. It's also not helpful to take Valium & Cie. when there are actual real reasons to feel depressed or bad about life. The majority of people simple endure, that's all they can do.

    That's not a mental malfunction, that's simple facts of reality. If you haven't yet met with people for whom their existence is like that, you lead a charmed life indeed and I'd say you should be very thankful. Just also acknowledge you are a relative rarity, not really a rule.

    The second misconception you work under is that an "escape" - whether book or other occupation - means that nothing has changed or been achieved for the person "escaping". Again you foist your own expectations on something of which you seem to have but a vague concept.

    Someone who "escapes" from his dreary life experiences a plethora of things which do change them to varying degrees, mostly only for a short time, but it does change them.

    - Respite

    It's a short interruption of the onslaught of negatives on one's system. A person who reads a book takes a time out, sort of like mini-holidays or a mini-cure at a health spa. The body relaxes, the person breathes easier, the heavy pressure of reality ceases to play such a detrimental role, and anyone who wants or needs "escape" definitely needs this outtime. You may not think so, but this is so.

    - Distraction

    The escapist book provides prime distraction for this person then. The chance to think outside of their own rut, about things which are very different from what they are daily faced with. That's like the change of scenery and climate which comes with holidays, but in a small way instead. It is again beneficial on one's whole system.

  3. Part 2

    - Mood

    Someone who has nothing to laugh about in their real life will, when reading a good escapist book, live vicariously with the characters in the book. They will laugh and cry, love and hate, rejoice and fear and feel satisfied when the characters manage to pull off their quest or interests.

    - Thoughts

    Just because a book is called "escapist" doesn't mean you don't think about its content, about what happens and how people behave in it, about the facts presented, which may be new to you. Someone who never was in Europe or Africa and who hasn't a chance in hell to ever make it there, might read an escapist book taking place there and thus learn things about those countries (if the author did a good job). A character in a book might express thoughts or ideas unknown or not common to the reader, and again they will have learned something. In short, it is entirely up to the book to provide food for thoughts.

    - Emotional Satisfaction

    Most people I know who read books to escape their lives have little to no outlet of their own dreams and emotions. A single, old janitor in some run-down apartment building who balances 3 or 4 jobs in an excruciating 16-hour-day to make the worst ends meet, the hooker around the corner who sells her body to an endless string of men, the white trash factory worker who comes home to wash for her 4 kids from as many absent fathers, they certainly experience an emotional lift and satisfaction on reading a romance in which the girl gets the hero and with it love and being cherished. It may be only for a few minutes, but that makes it worth picking up that bloody book and reading it, regardless of how cheap anyone considers that escape.

    I could go on, but the above does give the idea. It is only in your judgement that nothing but a loss of time comes from reading an escapist book.

    The problem is you took the wrong turn right there at the beginning.

    1. In the post above, I am giving my definition of escapism so that, when I use the term, people will understand what I mean by it. I am not insisting that the word must always be used in this way, or that this is the definition by which all other people have to abide. If a person reads a book that causes them to think in new ways and have new experiences, then I simply would not consider that an escapist experience, or an escapist book.

      Furthermore, yes, I certainly understand that some people have miserable lives, and I myself have struggled with depression and meaninglessness throughout my own life. However, disappearing into pure escapism is not a healthy or functional way to deal with these kinds of problems, as it does not help the person to change anything about their life, it merely facilitates them continuing at the same level of misery. It is an avoidant behavior, like a drug, which does nothing to improve their situation.

      I'm not saying I have never been miserable, myself--so worn down by life that I just wanted to stop thinking for a while, unable to find the energy to help myself--but I am saying that indulging in this urge does not aid us, and it is the sign of a mental issue when a person is so depressed and hopeless that they can't bear to do anything to improve their own situation.

      That is not a healthy lifestyle, It's a mental issue, and one that I have had to deal with personally, and will no doubt continue to deal with in the future. So, while I sympathize with a person who suffers like this, and the position it puts them in, I do not sympathize with the disorder that causes it, nor do I think the disorder itself should be excused or defended.

      Certainly, we all sometimes need to get away, to stop the mad muddle around us and get a moment to ourselves. However, living a life that consists of nothing but misery and temporary escape is awful, and it is not something we should try to defend, or promote. Certainly there will always be people who get stuck in such situations, but our priority should not be to make excuses for them, but to try to help them to break this cycle. The only escape we should promote is the escape from this harmful mental cycle of needless despair and into a life worth living.

      In that sense, I think of my definition of 'escapism' being very important, as it splits books into two categories: those that facilitate continued misery, and those that help us to change and grow away from misery. I'm not saying that we should rid our lives of pleasurable distractions from the unpleasant aspects of the world, but that we should do everything we can to make sure that those pleasurable distractions have content which will make us better, more whole people.

    2. That is, sorry to say it so baldly, nonsense.

      I wasn't for instance talking about mere depression. I believe I made that point repeatedly, I was talking about a situation in life where you quite simply can NOT change anything. NEVER. Not even slightly. A lot of people are exactly in such a position, and it usually is caused by outside agency and not by themselves.

      Apparently this is something too painful to think of for you, or maybe you have never met with such a situation. At least that would explain your lack of knowledge and insight in that respect.

      What you do, by your definition (which of course you are free to engage in) is hold them guilty for something they aren't guilty of and can do nothing about. You additionally judge their mental health without looking at their actual reality either.

      However, obviously you can't even see the difference between what I state and what you think exists. I disagree it does in the form you maintain, definitely not for the majority of people I've heard speak about the need to read escapist books.

      Unfortunately that relativises by several miles your reviews. Too bad, up to now I found them insightful enough, but with such misconceptions I don't feel I can trust them anymore.

    3. "I was talking about a situation in life where you quite simply can NOT change anything. NEVER. . . . and it usually is caused by outside agency and not by themselves."

      So these people are trapped by some outside agency (not by any psychological issue of their own) to the point that they cannot improve the state of their lives or educate themselves in any way? Are they being bodily prevented from choosing a book that would provide them with some kind of insight or personal growth?

      If they are not being physically restrained and forced to do it, then their decision to do this is determined by their own psychology. I am 'judging their mental health' based specifically on the situation that they are in, and the decisions that they are making.

      I understand that these decisions may be compromised by ignorance, a sense of worthlessness, and hopelessness, such that they feel they are unable to do anything else, but in that case, it is definitely a psychological issue. It is technically physically possible for an agoraphobe to go outside, it is not a locked door but a psychological barrier that prevents them.

      Likewise, if a person is not physically prevented from improving their life, yet still choose not to do so, what is preventing them, other than a psychological barrier?

      Now, perhaps you mean to suggest that this type of paralyzing feeling, this inability to ever change anything about life is the result of the physical conditions that this person has been put in. That, as they have not been educated, or given a sense of self-worth, or given opportunity, and that they have developed a psychological barrier which they are unable to overcome.

      I will agree with you that in every case, this sense of helplessness and worthlessness is to some degree the result of the environment around them making them feel this way. It is physically possible for a homeless man to get a shower, a haircut, and new clothes, so if he wants to be normal, and yet doesn't do these things, then there must be a psychological reason preventing him.

      Of course, this psychological reason may be the result of his being abused, of growing up in poverty, in an addiction to self-medication by alcohol. However, all of these are still problems that can only be solved internally, by psychological treatment.

      Take a person who is psychologically damaged in this way, who doesn't know how to control or improve his life, and let him win the lottery, and in a few years, he will be bankrupt, because simply changing the physical, external situation does nothing to solve the real, internal reasons that this person is trapped.

      So, when I talk about 'escapism', I'm talking about the way we approach life. Do we try to make things better, in whatever small ways we can, or do we remain avoidant and enable our own continual misery, snatching a few moments of distraction, here or there, in a life that grows more and more entrenched in destructive habit?

      Certainly, there are those who are in such a far-gone state that they are no longer in lucid control of their lives. I'm not saying that Alzheimer patients or paranoid schizophrenics who cannot tell hallucination from reality need to 'suck it up' and improve themselves.

      However, if we are capable of improving ourselves, even in the smallest of ways, we should. If a person is physically able, and lucid, but persists only in an unending cycle of meaningless distractions, I would consider that to be a big psychological problem.

      I'm not saying I always hold up to this standard, myself, or that anyone who fails to is a bad person--just as with any moral quandary, we are all going to slip up sometimes--but I do think that 'be the best person you can' is right up there next to 'do no harm' in terms of ideals that we should try to uphold for ourselves. It's just 'do no harm' turned inwards: treating the self with the same respect that you treat others.

  4. You know, I don't think I can even try to really escape into my reading anymore since I can't stop myself from judging the book as I read it. Once you start reviewing works and thinking, "What can you can really learn from this?" you take in the book with a critical eye and it's hard to turn it off. Actually I'm happy to not turn it off, else I'd be doing exactly what this post warns against.

    That and escaping into books, especially fantasy will corrode your score of the novel. At first you give it a five out of five. Then you think about it and push it down to a four. And when you ask yourself after reading more of the genre, "What was the message in that first book?" and find it lacking, you drop it to a three.

    Personally, I'd rather learn something than being entranced by it. You can even see it in the writings of people directly influenced by certain books. Once you fall into a world, it's hard to get back out of it. Even now, it's hard for people to escape the world of Tolkien or the more tragic and bloody stories of George RR Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series new craze of making fantasy more depressing and killing off characters.

    1. Well, everyone judges books as they read, even the least discerning reader will say things like 'the story wasn't very good' or 'the character made stupid decisions', even if they say they don't really judge books, but there's certainly a difference between people who don't think about it and people who are actively trying to understand how stories are told.

      I do agree about the 'star creep', where a book you might have rated highly years ago you don't think much of now, but that's something I love about reading: the more you do it, the better the stuff you're going to find, and no matter how much you've read, you'll still find stuff that just blows you away.

      And there are escapist readers who don't understand that, since they read the same kind of book over and over again, so when they hear that I didn't like Martin's book, they'll say "Oh it's so sad that you're cynical and judge books so much that you can't enjoy them", when, of course, the reason Martin's work fell flat was because I have read so many really great, well-written books that Martin is just dull and bland in comparison.

      Sure, when you develop your judgment, it will mean that you'll come down a lot harder on badly-written fluff like that, but it also opens up whole new worlds of great books you never would have discovered otherwise.

      Thanks for the comment

  5. I see your point.

    But I can't think of a work that would fit your definition of "escapism." Everything is reality, right? If it's there then it's real. You can make up a creature with the body of a dog and the head of a bull and the tail of a snake and the wings of a duck, but dogs and ducks and cows and snakes are real animals.

    Even something completely and intentionally disjointed from reality, like a Monty Python interlude or one of the old David Lynch shorts, is full of real things with real relations to each other. And you really can be enlightened/educated/whatever by a sequence like that, you just have to work harder, find whatever reference points the creator left for you and go from there.

    There is an ache in every human for a world that's bigger, better, prettier than the world in which we reside, and there are books and movies that feed that desire, but the later part of your essay suggests you aren't targeting that. You're going after the sort of story that so conforms to the user's reality ("I'll just read books that say the world revolves around me") that no mental jump is required for the reader to understand what the book is saying. And books like that don't add to anyone's mental pool, I agree, but they aren't usually referred to as "escapism." There's no term I can think of for them, but escapism is something different.

    1. "I can't think of a work that would fit your definition of "escapism." Everything is reality, right?"

      Actually, I can think of a number of books that are trying very hard to be something other than reality. Indeed, the whole point of propaganda is to create a false reality and get the reader to believe in it. Sometimes, as in books by political pundits, this false reality is something to be feared and reviled. Sometimes, as in self-help books, it's meant to be a comfort, to twist reality to help the person justify themselves.

      I'd say Monty Python and David Lynch provide the opposite of this: works which require a lot of thought in order for us to come to terms with them, and don't give us any comforting justifications to make ourselves feel better, or overblown enemies to blame. Again, as I say in my post, when I'm talking about 'escapism', I wouldn't define that as books which are fantastical, because those often lead us to think critically about the world. I'm talking about books that comfort and provide a false, simple view.

      "There is an ache in every human for a world that's bigger, better, prettier than the world in which we reside . . ."

      I disagree. I think in most people, there is a desire to justify and feel good about themselves, and whether they do this by identifying with pretty ideals, as you mention, or by despising false enemies or, as with most people, a combination of both, I'd say all of that falls under the auspice of 'escapism'--an attempt to create a false, comforting world that you would prefer to live in and then pretending that it is real.

      For most of the remarkable, thoughtful, knowledgeable people I know, it's not about an ache to find some 'better, prettier world', it's about finding the wonder and beauty in this world, which is plentiful if we can find the courage in ourselves to go out and look for it.

      Sure, in some ways, people do want to live in a better world than they do, but that doesn't have to mean escapism, it can also mean finding those places of beauty and trying to make this world better, not just avoiding it.

  6. I find it interesting that fantasy fiction - the most escapist of genres - has grown in popularity over the last 50 years, while history and more serious fiction has declined. And at the same time, those of us in the West are far more materially affluent and comfortable than our grandparents were.

    So as affluence and prosperity has increased, our dissatisfaction with the world we live in has also, paradoxically, increased. One would think a 22-year-old upper-middle-class young adult in suburban Denver would have far less reason to seek escape from his existence than his grandfather who worked in the pulp mill did. And yet, our young man seeks out escape far more often and with far more intensity than his grandfather did.

    Some would argue that with mass prosperity came alienation and emotional isolation. And that's probably true, to an extent. However, I think that sometime in the later half of the 20th century we fixed our aim on absolute human satisfaction, while at the same time became so glutted with sensation and consumption, that our sense of appreciation got knocked off-kilter. We are a society that sees the glass as 10 per cent empty, instead of 90 per cent full. The life conditions modern readers are trying to escape from would make most of people in history weep with joy to have to 'endure'.

    I'm with Keely on this one. When people tell me there's not much to enjoy in this life, it's clear they haven't really tried. The beauty of nature, the wonder of great works of music, the company of friends who you foster with care and loyalty - these are accessible to anyone who really tries. But yes, it does require some effort. Some active engagement with the world. It won't fall on your lap while you sit on the couch.

    1. "One would think a 22-year-old upper-middle-class young adult in suburban Denver would have far less reason to seek escape from his existence than his grandfather who worked in the pulp mill did."

      Except that this increase in prosperity did not come with an increase in place or purpose. Yes, we have more technology, more goods and food, but we have less personal responsibility, less opportunity to have a role in life.

      Most people now often switch jobs, they don't have careers, and the jobs they do work are often in the service industry, or in office work, where you are a mere cog in the machine, a thankless, endless task in which you produce nothing but instead continually shuffle around numbers and displays.

      We have less pain and difficulty, but also less purpose. Pain and difficulty aren't the worst things--they are a necessary part of life, something we all must learn to work through, and by working through them, we gain a sense of worth, and of self. Now, instead, we tend to live bland lives with few ups and downs, where our only conflicts and challenges are minor and unimportant. People focus on interpersonal drama because that's often the only type of struggle they know.

      A lot of people I know who are my age are fleeing from office and service work and trying to do blue collar jobs that have real, tangible work, where at the end of the day, you can look at something you've done with your own hands and feel a sense of achievement. Apparently, most people don't do well trapped in a chair, day-in, day-out, doing mindless work. It's not psychologically healthy.

      It's not necessarily that I'm surprised that people seek out escapist books, any more than I'm surprised that they drink--but that doesn't mean that either drinking or escapism actually do anything to help them.

      I'm lucky enough to have discovered that I can challenge myself with books that help me to confront my problems, and to see many sides of life, good and bad, so that I have a sense of achievement in life, an understanding of my role and my place. I can look back on my life every day and say "I'm better off today than yesterday, I know and understand more, and I will know even more tomorrow".

      "The life conditions modern readers are trying to escape from would make most of people in history weep with joy to have to 'endure'."

      The physical conditions, yes, but no the psychological condition. We can look at the children of wealthy people, or at lottery winners, and see that the mere physical state in which we live is not the determiner of our satisfaction. These are people who don't know how to find satisfaction, even when they have the physical means, they lack the knowledge and self-awareness. So instead, they seek out momentary distraction.

      Yes, if you take a person who already has a developed sense of self, a person who has been through challenges and pain and survived and learned something about themselves in the process and give them a job or give them money, they'll be happy to have it. But if you take someone who has none of that psychological strength, someone without those experiences, it doesn't matter what physical means you give them, because they don't know how to take advantage of it.

      "When people tell me there's not much to enjoy in this life, it's clear they haven't really tried."

      Yeah, definitely not, and it's sad to see, especially when you can tell that they are miserable and that they want to find some kind of purpose in life, but just don't have the faintest clue how to go about it. You can lead a horse to water.

  7. My father is a strict and conservative man. He would always force me to read books so I would grow into the ideal man that he wished me to be, and that is part of the reason why I never read enough literature as a child and teenager; I found video games more interesting (mostly the Pokemon series) because I could explore a world by myself and interact with people in a freer manner. It was only out of the house and during school hours that books felt interesting and engaging.

    I was eight years old, when my teacher tried to read Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to my Year Three class. I've got to admit that despite being introduced to Rowling so young, I never found the idea of Wizards and Witches in a Modern world that fascinating, I think it was my fathers conservatism creeping into my brain, but oh well. But, part of the reason why I didn't like it, was because the other children kept bashing my head in with Quiditch and what other nonsense that doesn't happen in the real world, as if that is what made the book important. Harry being stuck in an attic and treated as a slave was, unfortunately, the only thing I could identify with.

    I was ten years old, when my New Zealand teacher read The Hobbit to my Year Six class. How she tried to make us engage with the story in moral and real life terms is what made me remember that book for years to come, and kept my trust in literature in tact, though my opinions on Tolkien and fantasy has changed dramatically since I've read your reviews Keely--now that I've read extracts from Paradise Lost and the whole Illiad, I'm never going back. I can see now that stories which try to confront the world, or at least are read to confront the world, are more fulfilling than escapist books, in the long and short run.

    I have read much more now, and now that I'm older I have less pressure by parents to 'be who I'm supposed to be'--they assume that I have made that decision by now or am getting there. So books and even comics that confront the world have given me answers to questions I have pondered over, and have kept me moving.

    I understand why people wish to read escapist literature, but, in my opinion, if they think they already know how life is, thus read a specific book over and over, which hardly confront anything about reality in a meaningful way; they will never understand clearly enough why it is they suffer.


    1. Yeah, as you say, I have an idea of why people would want to read escapist literature, it's not particularly mysterious--but I also understand why some people would drink themselves to sleep every night, and just because I comprehend their motivations doesn't mean I think their response is productive or healthy. As you say, they will never confront reality in a meaningful way and as such, will continue to suffer in the same cycles. Escapist literature, like any other escapist behavior, will tend to reinforce harmful patterns of behavior.

      In any case, thanks for sharing your story--it's interesting to hear someone else's journey to literature.

  8. While I may agree with many of your points on the issue of escapism and escapist literature. I challenge your notion that "escapist" is an objective descriptor of a piece of literature or writing.

    Whether or not a piece of fiction challenges or teaches a reader anything is dependent on what the reader brings to the experience of themselves. A piece of work may be ostensibly written for the sake of simple escapism, but it does not mean it cannot unintentionally lead to a spark of the imagination that leads to a chain of thought that may lead to improvement of the reader. Self improvement in that case can be an unintended consequence of the read if the reader so finds it can be so.

    It is also possible that writing ostensibly created to challenge the reader and stir thought can have the opposite effect for some, sometimes not entirely involuntarily either. Again, it is dependent on what the reader brings to the experience themselves.

    And further still, the very act of learning and expanding one's mind can be a type of escapism in it's own right. I admit to being guilty of this third point. I have not been one who heavily reads fiction, I mostly read non-fiction. I read mostly books on history and science written for audiences of both the academic and non-academic variety, mostly the later as can be found in a general consumer bookstore or public library. I have enjoyed learning about the universe around me, I enjoy learning about the people around me with a particular emphasis on learning about how others think and feel and experienced things in ways that are different than I do. I enjoy reading things that stir thought and imagination and lead me to speculate and philosophize about the universe and about myself and my fellow human. And while I do this, I feel a rush of excitement and joy as my brain releases that wonderful neurotransmitter dopamine. The neurotransmitter associated with learning, pleasure, anxiety responses and psychological addictions, the same neurotransmitter whose receptors interact with cocaine, giving that drug the effect it has on the brain. While I did this for many years, I found myself both expanding my mind and completely ignoring my own life. Growing *was* escapism for me. I had made a form of writing designed to challenge and provoke deep thought, more directly than any other genre of writing, into an escapist drug. I escaped not from reality as a whole, I relished in it, I escaped from *my* reality.

    So, how exactly do we objectively measure a work as escapist ?

    1. Well, it seems we're talking about two distinct definitions here. The first one is whether or not a certain work is inherently escapist. I don't think this can be defined by what an individual reader happens to get out of it.

      It's true what you say, that we can sometimes learn something from an escapist book. I know that I have learned a lot by deconstructing what simplistic, cliche books do wrong, but that doesn't speak to the quality of the book. Likewise, even a very dullardly book can sometimes make a good point, but when that point is buried amongst contradiction, vagueness, and bad construction, then overall, the book is not going to be worthwhile.

      Likewise a reader can sometimes learn nothing from a very informative book, but I wouldn't say it isn't a thoughtful book just because of a particular reader's failings. To me, that's like saying that since a baby cannot drive a car, then we can no longer call it a car.

      Overall, I'm looking at books based on their content, not on the reactions of a particular reader, or of an average reader.

      The second idea we're dealing with is the 'escapist habit' which some people exhibit. This is a person who will gladly and deliberately choose to read books as an avoidant behavior. In this case, my definition for 'escapist literature' is anything they come away from no better than when they started it, aside from perhaps a temporary boost in mood.

      Certainly, this could cover a wide variety of books, based on the predilections of a particular reader. Usually it means that reader only seeking out things they are familiar and comfortable with, things that do not challenge them, which present them only with things that reinforce their prejudices and justify their biases.

      I tend to feel that a truly thoughtful book which tackles it's subject matter with depth and complexity is not going to serve as a simple comfort--of course, there are people who are so blind and biased that they will willfully misread anything, but I'm not going to blame the book for the foolishness of an individual.

      And yes, it's true that we get a certain chemical thrill from non-escapist books. I'm not suggesting we avoid our own satisfaction--it feels good to learn, to progress, and to better ourselves. It can often be challenging in the moment, but leaves us with a feeling of accomplishment.

      As for your own case with non-fiction, I suppose I would ask: did these books never cause you to reflect on your own life and decisions? Did they not explore ideas and challenges in life that you had to face every day? I do know that there are a great number of nonfiction texts that are escapist, such as self-help books, get-rich books, self-help books disguised as science, and bias-confirming histories, like Howard Zinn's.

      And then there are forms of 'deep thought' which are, in and of themselves, escapist. They are extended thought exercises, based not on reality, but on their own internal systems of bias and confirmation. I think of Hesse's spiritualism or Kant's metaphysics, which I find to be ultimately self-contained and self-serving.

      So, as to your question of how we objectively look at a work and determine to where it lies on the thoughtful vs. purely escapist spectrum, you'd need a competent reader and thinker to go through the work and pick out its ideas, look at how they are presented, whether they make sense, whether they are contradictory, whether they reflect life, whether the book is challenging or confirming, whether it is predictable and cliche or imaginative and exploratory--in short, whether it is a book designed to promote self-reflection, or to shut it down.

  9. Moorcock have said an interesting about escapism on his legendary essay, Epic Pooh. Said, he thought that a good fiction should offer escape, but at the same time give us insight on the cause of our escape. What do you think of that? In the end though, Moorcock still basically said that an ideal fiction is the one who challenge the reader.

    1. Yeah, I agree with Moorcock. When he talks about Lin Carter trying to 'justify his philistinism' with the notion of escapism--and bland escapism at that--I feel he's talking about the same habit I'm critiquing here, of authors and readers who avoid challenge and instead reach for sentimentalism.

  10. I always hear people voicing their dislikeness of video game or movie because the characters aren't relatable. This baffles me. Why must character in fiction be relatable in the first place? Isn't this just another form of escapism? I would like to hear your opinion on "relatable characters mean a good fiction" argument that I usually heard.

    1. Oh yeah, I definitely think that's a big aspect of escapism--the character has to be someone the reader can admire, can see the best parts of themselves in, can aspire to. For someone who likes to deny their own bad side, their own weaknesses, watching a dark and difficult character is a painful experience--it's forcing them to look at that in themselves, when they would rather be concentrating on their better side. The whole concept of the 'anti-her' seems to be a construction whereby a character a character with negative outward traits is turned into a pleasant fantasy. His bad traits are actually good traits: he's stubborn, he always gets his own way, he's too honest for his own good, he manipulates people, he uses violence to cut through the red tape. This just becomes another fantasy to live out.

      It's actually just like being in theater: you meet some actors who just don't want to play characters who come off badly, characters with flaws, characters who lose, characters who are poor or stupid or powerless. They are only acting in order to play the hero, to pretend they are a better person than they really are.

      Then, on the other side, you have actors who revel in the chance to play a villain, to play a wretch, to play a tragic figure who struggles uselessly and dies, to play a coward, a man who is too weak to do the right thing, and suffers for it. These are the true actors, those willing to explore and portray the whole breadth of human experience, who shy away from no corner of their own soul, no matter how dark.

      Indeed, I find it pleasurable and cathartic to confront that dark aspect, though it can be difficult to do--it certainly takes much more thought and willpower than playing a happy hero.

      And certainly, beyond the 'ideal character vs. unpleasant character' split, there is another way for characters to be unrelatable to the average reader: if they are just vastly different, in terms of philosophy, outlook, life experience, and all the rest. Again, this sort of difference is something I find fascinating, for it allows me to learn about my self and about humanity by contrasting it with my own experience.

      Of course, any person who is uncomfortable with themselves is going to try to be something they are not. They invent a persona for themselves that they try every day to live up to, trying to convince themselves that they are what they wish they were: the man who acts hyper-masculine to hide the fact that he feels sensitive and emotional, or the person who strikes out physically at others because inside, they feel afraid and weak. For them, being confronted with a character who acts and thinks differently is a threat, it shakes the facade they have tried to build up to protect themselves.

      So in that sense, it's certainly a symptom of escape, of denial, and most of all, of a life of such profound fear and pain that it cannot stand to be confronted.

  11. I love this blog (in fact I just discovered you through Gormenghast). But I have to say something here: this is almost word for word similar to the debate on high brow vs low brow entertainment, or improving vs disposable fiction, with an only too predictable self-congratulatory conclusion. Well, if it gives you some comfort, communist states usually heavily endorse mimetic/realist fiction, while decrying escapist / un-improving (bourgeois) entertainment, and there's the old adage that only jailers would oppose escapism. Don't take that as inflammatory remarks, it's just history.
    From your arguments, it seems that you dislike the notion that some people have given up on this reality and have turned to fiction to satisfy their narcissism. But of course, you are only focusing on the extremes, and we know we can't have infinite bacon even if it's awesome. It's like a child playing too many video games and failing the exams. Now then, it's not good to jump to conclusions. The problem of achieving the balance between work and play, between learning and relaxing is old, and the solution dialectical. You're mostly responding to an extreme accusation with pretty extreme statements of your own, like escapism being "nothing less than the willing death of the mind" (or bacon being "nothing less than the fattening of the stomach", which is, uhm, hilarious). The way I see it, most people are both awed and disappointed the real world, just as they both confront and escape it, and read both escapist and thought-provoking works. Disappointment can be an impetus for change, as well as procrastination. Escapism can be a complete surrender, or a moment of forgetfulness before bounding back into productivity. We aren't robots. We need bacon and escapism.

  12. I'm really hoping that you still respond to comments and will consider answering a few questions from a young reader who doesn't have a lot of reading experience.

    1) How much can non-escapist books actually help a person when compared to empirically researched ways of bettering their psychological well-being? Wouldn't reading be low-priority and a waste of time in comparison?

    2) Do you have any examples of reading experiences that have changed your outlook on life to a more positive one? Or is it the case that you don't necessarily want a more positive outlook but merely value new and thought provoking, idea changing experiences intrinsically, regardless of whether they have a lasting positive effect on your mental well-being?

    3) Could any of these benefits/experiences you have gained from reading be acquired by other means, perhaps in a more efficient manner? Is the learning you gain from literature negligible compared to other ways of learning?

    4) How does one avoid falling into the trap of escapism? I think I would have a hard time determining whether I was actually reading an idea expanding book or not. I would be afraid of fooling myself.

    I haven't read a lot of books yet. I'm only 18 and have recently found the idea of books and so-called great literature intriguing as well as the questions surrounding the reading of it. What I decide to think about questions such as these will likely have a large impact on the reading route i take, which is why I sincerely hope for a response from you.



    1. I don't post or reply here as much any more, but I do try to keep an eye on things.

      "How much can non-escapist books actually help a person when compared to empirically researched ways of bettering their psychological well-being? Wouldn't reading be low-priority and a waste of time in comparison?"

      Well, when you look at those methods, you will find that they were often inspired by and based upon ideas from art and literature. When Freud developed his system, he based it upon fictional explorations of the human mind, such as Oedipus, Narcissus, and Elektra. Indeed, I've often thought that these myths worked as a sort of 'mythic DSM' for people, giving them a way to recognize and classify different common mental states and conditions.

      I would actually argue that the original myth-makers were more accurate and insightful than Freud, himself. What Freud failed to take into account was that he was treating a small, culturally-specific group. His upper-class Viennese clients were raised away from their parents by nursemaids. This meant that they didn't see their parents enough to develop the natural 'incest taboo' that one has for people one cohabits with before about age ten. So, his 'Oedipus Complex' was a localized artifact of the peculiar family structure of his clients. In the original myth, on the other hand, we have Oedipus raised in a foreign city, never knowing his parents, so of course he would not have developed the incest taboo.

      In my experience, this sort of influence is everywhere, in all of the sciences and empirical fields--the quark is named for the piece of literature that inspired the discoverer to look for it. When you observe the lives of great scientific thinkers, you'll see how they were influenced by non-fiction and the way it explores the human condition. I've even heard experts in psychology single out figures like Tolstoy and Shakespeare and say that they knew more about humanity than most modern people in the field.

      Indeed, when there are large social conflicts and changes, the first place they tend to show up is in art, because art is a place to explore anxieties and shifts in reality. These concepts do not become scientifically codified until later, once we have had time to think about them and categorize them.

    2. "Do you have any examples of reading experiences that have changed your outlook on life to a more positive one?"

      Oh sure, all the time. One of the reasons I read is because I love those moments of sudden insight, when an author makes something clear to you, or poses a fascinating question. Or perhaps I suddenly recognize someone I know in a character, and get an insight into their life and their motivations that reveals to me the depth and complexity of their condition.

      For example the humble struggles of the cart driver in Chekhov's Misery have always stayed with me as I deal with people. The recollection that no matter how simple or straightforward someone else's life seems, there is a real person in there, trying to reach out, to have their existence acknowledged.

      Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece is another work I think about often, in its exploration of human obsession and the way that we become short-sighted when we obsess over the same details endlessly. The psychology of someone who destroys what they intended to perfect shows up everywhere.

      Or, as you say, sometimes these realizations are less about 'positive outlook' and more about coming to understand the world, both the good and bad. Kavan's Ice is an amazing exploration of a man so cut off from his emotions that he can never find peace. It isn't a pleasant read, indeed it's often disturbing, but it is one of the most powerful and insightful explorations of the subject I've ever seen, in or out of fiction.

      "Could any of these benefits/experiences you have gained from reading be acquired by other means, perhaps in a more efficient manner? Is the learning you gain from literature negligible compared to other ways of learning?"

      Actually, with its powerful metaphors, visuals, psychological connection, and capacity to show many points of view at once, I'd say fiction isa quite efficient method of learning. After all, don't we often take complex problems and restate them as stories in order to make sense of them?

      I would also warn against the pursuit of efficiency as a way to live your life. It is appealing, in that it tends to simplify things, but it also cuts you off.

      For example, it's more efficient to google the definition of the word rather than flip through the pages of a dictionary, but with the dictionary, you might accidentally come across some other word, or an illustration, which leads you to some new insight. The most efficient route does not always lead to the best results.

      "How does one avoid falling into the trap of escapism? I think I would have a hard time determining whether I was actually reading an idea expanding book or not. I would be afraid of fooling myself."

      Yeah, that's always a difficulty in life, to try to figure out whether you are deluding yourself. It isn't some simple matter that you just figure out one day, rather it is a never-ending process. It's fought in a dozen little battles every day, and you have to keep an eye out, be ready for it.

      Generally, I've found a good way to deal with it is to try to move outside of your comfort zone, to read things that are difficult, that challenge you in different ways. Some books are challenging stylistically, difficult to process and make sense of. Others have difficult characters who it takes a long time to understand. Others present fraught conflicts which help to illustrate the perils of the human conditions. The main thing is that I try not to simply read books that agree with me, that tell me I am right, that simplify things and give me simple answers.

      I guess one good sign is a book that you have to put down now and then, just because it forces you to stop and think about what it has shown you--where you have to find some way to come to terms with it before you turn the next page. Of course, it's also important not just to read stupid things that disagree with you, and make you feel more correct and superior.

    3. It's also folly to assume that the STEM fields are somehow less arbitrary than art, less based on whim, trend, and self-justification. The Sokal Affair and the wild interpretations of modern pop-science writers should be more than enough to convince people that science can be just as frivolous and pointless as art--if not more so. I know plenty of STEM people who are quite naive and short-sighted about the world, because they are so convinced of the superiority and authority of their own little corner of the field.

    4. Thank you for such an extensive answer! You've definitely provided me with some interesting points to consider.