Escapism

It was FantasyCon over the weekend. FantasyCon was really great. It was the second one I’ve been to. Although I found it a bit outfacing to start with, once you get into it and start talking to people it opens up into a very rich, receptive and friendly kind of party.  Congratulations and well done and thank you to all involved in the organising. And congratulations to all of the award winners!

I went to several panels over the weekend, but the one that prompted this post was the one set up to discuss escapism in genre fiction. The panel chair (the fantasy author Juliet E McKenna) opened proceedings with the suggestion that escapist fiction is often met with sneers and generally held in low regard, and went on to posit that this was a sad and miserable thing. McKenna seemed to be saying, in short, that there is nothing wrong with escapism.

Now the world is often relentlessly foul, as we all know. Life can be sad and ugly and pathetic and tedious etc. (Much like this blog). This point was made by an audience member, who asserted that genre fiction should be proud of its escapist qualities, that we should (I guess) re-appropriate the word and emphasise its positive meanings and connotations, given the nasty, brutish and short nature of real life. The panel members seemed to agree.

This is when I had to start biting my tongue. I mean, I could have contributed to the discussion myself, but, frankly, it would have felt too confrontational and too much like I was attacking the audience member that had spoken. She was obviously a very intelligent and thoughtful woman and I’m sure in one major sense we are in agreement – i.e. there is nothing wrong with escapism, in theory – but in another sense… well.

For one thing, any kind / genre of book has the potential to be escapist. (A point made by panel member Chaz Brenchley). Fantasy / Speculative Fiction (SFF) does not have the monopoly. Books marketed as literary fiction can be escapist. Books in the author ‘A-Z’ section, I mean. For another thing, although the term ‘escapist’ is often used pejoratively in relation to SFF, we all know that it’s ignorant to define SFF as escapist at all. Sure, it can be, as can any other work of fiction, but… Nineteen Eighty-Four – SFF, yes, but escapist? Not really. Let The Right One In – definitely SFF, and, again, definitely not escapist. Frankenstein. The list goes on. The Sandman Chronicles. Etc etc etc etc. Even when there are comfortable, escapist elements, there are serious, relevant things going on as well. (See a post from fellow Quercus author Rod Rees on this here).

And there it is, really. I set ‘comfortable, escapist elements’ up in opposition to ‘serious, relevant things’ just in the sentence before last, without even thinking about it. Because although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pure escapism, it is inherently a way of ignoring life, surely? I mean – what else can it be? It is escape. It is closing yourself off from those experiences that you don’t want to think about. Even more extremely, it is closing yourself off from your world. Wouldn’t it be better for a book to actually explore and illuminate the fantastic in life, or cast the mundane in an extraordinary light (i.e. change your life/the world a little bit by being relevant to it/discussing it) than just enable you to ignore it for a while? It’s perfectly possible for SFF to do this as well as any other kind of fiction.

We can’t on one hand be proud to be escapist and then on the other complain that we’re not taken seriously by the literary community. Personally, I think all genres should be regarded equally, but to me that requires SFF (as an entity) to drop the whole ‘escapism is great’ thing. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, but it is the opposite of cultural involvement. Chest-beatingly, flag-wavingly escapist fiction will only result in the further derision of the whole SFF scene.

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3 Responses to “Escapism”

  1. I like this post. I think a lot of light fiction aimed at women (you know the word I am avoiding using…) also describes itself as ‘escapist’ and then wonders why it isn’t taken seriously by mainstream / literary readers and writers.

    And no, there’s nothing wrong with escapist fiction, whatever its’ genre, but certainly, forms that engage with issues, ideas and themes that many people find important (cultural involvement is a good and less vague way to describe it) will end up being taken more seriously.

    I suppose it depends if you view your books as ‘entertainment’ and ‘distraction’ or as something else. I take the something else books more seriously, even if they are also distracting and entertaining.

  2. By ‘your books’ I mean the ones that you (vague, plural you) read, not the ones you have written, Tom.

    Gah! Must sleep. Hope your reading at the Dids Fest went well 🙂

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