Monday, December 10, 2012

Escapism Makes Me Crazy

Last month, I had a wonderful evening attending Talking Volumes, a program sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio in which contemporary authors talk about their work.  I got to hear Erin Morgenstern discuss her fantastic novel The Night Circus, and overall, it was an interview that made the novel more interesting, rather than stripping away the novel's magic, as sometimes happens with these things.

At one point, however, host Kerri Miller asked a question that hit me the wrong way:

While I really appreciated Morgenstern's answer, which talks about reading as a journey, I was frustrated by the question itself.  On the surface, perhaps, there isn't anything wrong with asking how much an author has thought about her fiction being escapist, but it seems that "escapist" is often used as code for "fluff" or "not serious literature."  "Real literature" is that which addresses "real world" issues; the stuff that travels to fantasy worlds is an escape from these issues, and therefore doesn't deserve to be taken as seriously.

This issue isn't a new one.  In 1957, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in The Humanist about this very topic, noting, "it seem[s] rather ironic to me that science fiction is continually lumped under the heading  of 'escape literature,' and usually as the most extreme kind, in fact.  Yet it does not escape into the 'isn't' as most fiction does, or the 'never was' as fantasy does, but into the 'might very well be.'  In its best phases, if science fiction escapes, it is an escape into reality."

Much more recently, Lev Grossman questioned whether or not fantasy is an escape at all.  He writes, "what kind of escape do you find in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros? Or in the grim, rain-soaked Britain of Kate Atkinson? Or in Suzanne Collins’ brutal, subjugated Panem? What kind of cocktails are those? They make you forget your own problems, sure, but they replace them with a whole new set of problems, even more dire (hopefully) than the ones you left behind."

In both of these instances the focus is on science fiction and fantasy, and how the escapism of these genres might be useful, if it's even escapist at all.

I wonder, though, if it would also be productive to talk about how all literature, even non-fiction, is escapist in some way or another.  Why do we read?  What happens when we read?  We are transported somewhere else, out of our homes and lives and into the world of whatever it is we're reading about.  Whether we're reading Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, the work of Kate Chopin, or a biography of Henry VIII, we are transported to a different place and time, and in many cases, we become someone else.  Even when reading poetry, we are transported to a place where words and sounds matter more than dishes and laundry, where we are able to revel in language and take the time to slow down.  Certainly, the world we are transported to might have a more direct connection to the real world than say, Narnia does, but that doesn't change the fact that we are still escaping from the immediacy (and mundanity) of our everyday lives.

It is my hope that if we as readers more consciously recognize that all reading is an act of escapism, that we will be able to talk about escapism more intelligently.  Rather than escapism being a binary category--a book is either escapist or not--if we think of all literature as escapist, we will be able to analyze the different ways in which this escape is made possible and what effects it has.  I think it would be fascinating to examine how authors create consistency within their literary worlds, so as not to draw attention to the created nature of these worlds.  We could study how the metafictionality of postmodern authors such as Paul Auster challenges escapism by disrupting the artifice of the created world.  And we could think about the different reasons an author might have for crafting an escape to a particular place--reasons that might allow us to draw connections between historical texts and fantasy novels that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Now, those are the kind of conversations about escapism that would be productive and that would not threaten my sanity--something I very much would like to keep!

You can listen to the entire conversation with Erin Morgenstern over at the Talking Volumes webpage (scroll down a bit)--I'd highly recommend it.

By Jen Miller