In Defense of Escapism

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Escapism is treated like a dirty word, and it’s smeared liberally over anything that falls into a clear genre. The good news is, that word shouldn’t bother you as much as it probably does. Many great authors touted its value, and if your book provided an escape, then it clearly did something right.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Few folk in history knew their stuff like Tolkien. Not only did the man invent fictional languages, worlds, and peoples, he wrote an entire essay on the value of fairy tales and fantasy stories. Middle Earth grew out of his love of mythology, and he spent much of his life studying it. He understood not only how it worked in a literary sense, but how it functioned culturally. When he heard grown-ups dismissing these kinds of stories as mere escapism, he had something to say:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

The full essay is worth a read, but if you need a quick take-away, here’s a summary: fantastical, escapist stories are important.

C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and Tolkien’s long-time friend, had his own piece to say on the value of such stories, and he went out of his way to call out the hypocrisy behind the ‘escapist’ label:

Now there is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fiction. All such escape is from the same thing; immediate, concrete actuality. The important question is what we escape to.

– C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

The quick take-away is simple: All reading is escapist. That’s how the mind works.

Wilde Aestheticism

As a proponent of Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde thought the beauty and enjoyment of art mattered more than any message (particularly social or political) it might carry. Have you heard the term “Art for art’s sake?” (Hint: A major movie studio features it on its crest.) That saying comes from this art movement.

What does this mean for escapism? The biggest critique of escapism is usually something along the lines of – It doesn’t aim to change our reality or directly comment on the state of our world, so it’s intrinsically cheap and pointless. It’s important to note that even though Wilde made art for art’s sake, his work is a favorite of literary critics, and it says a lot about England’s upper classes in Wilde’s day. He said a lot without stopping to preach on a soap box, even if that wasn’t his intent.

Escapism is designed for the experience. Writing without a particular mission besides making something fun, engaging, and beautiful isn’t new, and it’s not wrong.

A History of Snobbery

The biggest truth you (should) take away from college-level literature courses is this: what we call great art was just great fun back in the day. Dickens’ work is so long because most of his novels appeared as serialized stories in newspapers (for which he was paid by the word). Shakespeare is full of raunchy humor, written to entertain the masses. Gothic literature like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were snubbed as detrimental to the minds of young women.

They were all escapist, pop-culture flights of fancy in one way or another. Don’t feel badly about genre and escapism critics turning their noses up today. In a hundred years, critics may love you.

How do you enjoy your escapism? What’s your favorite piece of escapist literature? Share your thoughts with other writers below!

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