Genre Reading: Is “Escapism” a Bad Thing?

by Jami Gold on April 18, 2017

in For Readers, Random Musings

Barrel-of-monkey toys linked inside jar to the top edge with text: Can Readers Escape with a Story?

Coming up this weekend is World Book Day, a worldwide celebration of authors, books, and reading. Amazon even sent out an email to many of their customers, asking people to share their #LovetoRead moments on social media.

Reading is always a great thing to celebrate, but as we’ve covered before, certain types of reading can be valued more than others. However, assigning value judgments to the labels of “literary” and “genre” doesn’t make sense because preferences are subjective opinions. There’s no “better” or “worse,” just preferences.

Despite that truth, one descriptive term that’s often used as a put-down for genre stories is escapism, as in “Romance stories might be good for escapism, but little else.” I’ve said many times that I’m a genre fan, so I’ll admit that I don’t understand why the term is used this way.

Is romance or any other genre story really “escapism”? What does that mean? What do readers see as an escape? Is escapism a “bad” thing, and if so, why?

What Is Escapism?

The term escapism is usually used to describe a story that allows readers to “escape from reality.” Some genres are considered escapism by default, and sometimes the description might be applied to a story considered an “easy” read, such as a beach read.

I don’t disagree that some stories are more easy reading than others, and if some people want to call the ease-of-reading on those books “escapism,” they’re welcome to. But I think that’s missing the mark on the definition above.

What Do Readers See as an Escape?

“Escape from reality” could mean that readers are swept away by the story, forgetting (escaping) the world around them. In other words, story immersion can be a form of escapism, and as we explored last month, immersion is a goal most of us have for the stories we read and write.

“Escape from reality” could also mean that readers enjoy a story different from (an escape from) their day-to-day lives, granting an experience they couldn’t otherwise share. In other words, unique settings, characters, and situations could all provide an escape from the reader’s standard experience.

On the surface, neither of those traits—story immersion or unique experiences—seems like a bad thing. So what explains the bad rap of “escapist reading” as unrealistic?

Escapism vs. Realism

Given those two situations above, no genre is always going to be escapist for every reader. Both story immersion and reader circumstances vs. story circumstances are subjective.

Not every science fiction story is written to be immersive, and even for those that try to embody that quality, not every reader will be swept away by the subjective elements of story premise, voice, characters, etc. Same goes for other genres.

However, it’s often the latter situation of different experiences that leads to escapism descriptions. Is that perspective similarly subjective? Yes and no.

While some elements are definitively different from any readers’ experiences (it’s probably safe to say the chances are low that our readers will be time travelers, starship captains, vampires, dukes, etc. *smile*), other elements aren’t as fantastical. For example, a story set in Australia might be unique to a reader in the U.S., but the setting wouldn’t be the same escape from reality for an Aussie reader.

That said, even in “fantastical” stories, other elements ground the story in realism. Maybe that starship captain has to deal with a demanding boss, the time-traveler struggles with a drug-addicted relative, the vampire suffers from trauma, or the duke feels pressure to keep up appearances.

In fact, those reality-based elements provide a way for readers to relate to the characters and the story. So in a way, to be relatable to readers, every story needs to have some grounding in reality.

Are Certain Genres Always Escapist?

Yet genre stories are often seen as more escapist than literary fiction. Why is that?

We’ve discussed before that every genre embodies a promise to readers:

  • Mysteries promise a story featuring a crime that’s solved in a satisfying way.
  • Thrillers promise a nail-biting race to confront a villain and/or prevent a catastrophe.
  • Romances promise a story with a central love story building to a satisfying and happy relationship.
  • Etc., etc.

I suspect those promises—those “formulas” for the expected story and ending—contribute to the perception of escapism. After all, in real life, there are no guarantees that good will triumph, justice will prevail, and love will overcome.

But as I mentioned above, those same stories often include strong reality-based aspects. In my romance stories, I’ve included the elements of child abuse, suicide, parental neglect, sexual assault, Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD, gaslighting, etc.

Obviously, genre stories can address serious, realistic issues and still be labeled as escapist. So in some cases, the sense of escape might come strictly from the promise of the genre’s “guaranteed” satisfying ending rather than being defined by a reading experience that completely avoids real-life issues.

Yet I challenge the beginning assumption that “good” endings are unrealistic and therefore an escape from reality. In real life, many terrorist plots are thwarted, many crimes are solved, and many couples are in love and happy.

As I’ve argued before:

“Romances are the modern fairytale, and yet contrary to the many digs at the genre, they’re still realistic on a subtextual level. As historical romance author Tessa Dare pointed out, anyone who contends that relationships with respect, fidelity, and great sex are fantasy are, once again, being willfully blind. How sad life would be if believing in love meant we had no grip on reality.”

Is Escapism a Bad Thing?

This brings us back to the original issue of some people using escapist as a put-down for genre stories, as though a satisfying ending was somehow a bad thing. As though a happy ending was taking the easy way out.

In fact, it’s often harder to write a happy ending than an unhappy one—just ask any author who’s written themselves into a corner and doesn’t know how to solve the character’s issues. *smile* It’d be far easier to let the character fail and leave them to their misery.

Similarly, in real life, it’s usually harder to create a happy life than an unhappy one. Being happy with our situation often takes hard work. Easy? Not at all.

More importantly, if a story satisfies us (such as because it meets the expectations of the genre promise), the story will make us happy. Personally, I want more happiness in my life, so I say to bring on the escapism if that’s the label people want to use. *grin*

Escapism and Mental Health

During a recent conversation with frequent commenter here Sieran Lane, I drew the comparison between the satisfaction of “escapist” stories and the concepts of “garbage in, garbage out” or “you are what you eat.”

That’s how I see reading happy stories. If I put unhappy stories inside me, I’ll get unhappy attitudes coming out. Or if I “eat” unhappy stories, I’ll be more unhappy. To me, choosing to read genre stories with satisfying or happy endings is a way to keep up my mental attitude.

Is my way of looking at reading the only way? Absolutely not. Others are welcome to have different goals for their reading.

However, taking care of our mental health isn’t something to belittle or dismiss with a shallow put-down. There’s absolutely nothing bad about choosing to welcome more positive influences into our life. There’s nothing wrong or weak about choosing to avoid unhappy stories that might negatively affect our mental health.

We might have challenging real-life situations that require us to add weight to the happy side of our mental-health scale just to maintain some semblance of balance. Or we might be emotionally sensitive (especially common among artists) and want to avoid an “infection” of negativity. Or we might have a million other legitimate reasons for preferring certain kinds of stories.

Just as common sense tells us to protect our body from bad germs, common sense might tell us to protect our mental health from bad attitudes. It’s okay to avoid the risk of reading a “realistic” unhappy story until we’re prepared in the same way we’d avoid the risk of walking into a tent of Ebola patients without protection.

In other words, reading happy stories isn’t necessarily about escaping our real-life problems. Instead, “escapist” stories can give us the mental strength to face our reality and try to improve our situation. And that’s a valuable trait. *smile*

What does escapism mean to you? Do you tend to think that some genres are more escapist than others, and if so, in what ways? Do you think escapism is a good thing or a bad thing? Is your mental health affected by the stories you read (or the influences around you)? Do you ever use escapist stories to improve your mental health?

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8 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Althea Claire Duffy April 18, 2017 at 11:23 am

My favorite stories tend to be genre stories, especially fantastical ones, deeply rooted in realism. My writing tends toward these as well. But then, I’ve always been a “both/and” sort of person. (You don’t want to be behind me in line for ice cream.)

And yes, it does tend to be harder to write happy endings than unhappy ones. Solving characters’ problems convincingly is hard!

Oddly, sometimes when I’m in a bad place mentally I gravitate toward more serious or unhappy stories – because I can’t believe in happy ones and find them nauseatingly insincere. It’s like how when I hated myself most I’d react to compliments with rage at how condescending and false I thought they were. But when anxious I often want happier things – and when happy I want a variety, tending somewhat cheery.

And yes – reading stories is often a way to find our strength to face real problems. Thank you.

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Melissa Maygrove April 18, 2017 at 11:51 am

I think many people use ‘escapism’ as it relates to fiction (namely romance) in a negative way. And maybe some of the books are–those that are unrealistic, sappy, or over the top. Suspension of disbelief make all fiction ‘escapist’ to some degree. Ultimately, none of it is real.

To me, escapism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People sink into lots of things to get away from the stresses of life for a while (vacations, television, hobbies). If it doesn’t impair your ability to view the world realistically or function in it, I don’t see a problem.

I enjoy romance novels in large part because the HEA is a sure thing. I don’t like to invest time reading a book only to be let down and feeling depressed when it’s over.

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Deborah Makarios April 18, 2017 at 4:14 pm

As Tolkien said in ‘On Fairy-Stories’, “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. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”
In my opinion, escapism in fiction only becomes a problem when it leaves you less, not more capable of dealing with life outside the book.

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Sieran April 18, 2017 at 4:55 pm

Wow, thanks for giving this topic such a thorough treatment! I especially liked the part where you gave different possible definitions of what “escapism” means. 🙂

Yeah there is a hidden assumption in some social circles that if you read a lot of novels, it must mean you’re avoiding your real-life problems… What nonsense, of course, but social circles may sometimes influence a person’s beliefs until the person comes to question these beliefs!

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about different labels and their different connotations. I feel like I’ll get less respect if I say I want to read “for fun,” “for pleasure,” or “for leisure.” I’ll be taken a bit more seriously if I say I read “to make myself happy”, read to “maintain my happiness,” or read “for the sake of my happiness.” And I’ll get even more respect if I say I’m reading for my “health,” “mental health,” “emotional health,” “emotional well-being,” or similar terms.

With all of those terms, I might actually be describing the same thing, but because the words have different connotations (pleasure, fun, leisure vs happy, happiness vs mental/ emotional health), our feelings may be more or less respected. So I keep these in mind when I talk to people. ^^ It also depends on who I’m talking to. I’d probably say I’m reading for my emotional health to my parents, but say I’m reading for fun/ enjoyment/ my happiness to my friends.

Also, I think I mentioned this to you before, but in my teenaged years, I read A LOT of dark and depressing literary classics. They were great artistically, but emotionally they were pretty heavy. I didn’t realize it until later on in my 20’s, but being exposed to so much sadness for that many years in novels, trained my brain to have a highly pessimistic view of the world and of humanity. Such that I later realized that many people around me had much more optimistic attitudes towards the society and people.

Well, I still think many things in the society are messed up, but my dad brought up the point that since I was reading literary classics, the authors tended to criticize things that were happening in their time period. These things may not be happening in our society in the 21st century anymore. I don’t mean we should dismiss people’s struggles in the historical times, of course. But I might just be unreasonably pessimistic to believe that many of the things those authors (mostly 19th century) talked about, still apply today. So I don’t need to be THAT sad and cynical about the world!

Plus, I now believe that there are both good and bad things in life. But the brain can feel that one side is more dominant than the other (e.g. a mostly happy world) due to what we’ve been most intensely, frequently, or recently exposed to. I noticed that fictional events carry more weight in my mind than real life events!! It’s as though I take the fictional worlds more seriously than the real world. XD But that might just be me. Yet, that’s a reason why I need to pay extra attention to what I read and how often I read it! The power to control what and when we read, is a power to control our emotions, in a way. I really do use the books I read to control my emotions, lol.

It’s the thing where: If you can’t change your situation, change your attitude. Well, I unfortunately can’t change some of the highly messed up stuff in the society. But instead of being crushed and depressed about this all the time, I need to manage my emotions to help me be happy. It doesn’t mean my problems are trivial or not distressing. But I notice that sometimes if I validate my negative feelings towards injustices too much, I may get flooded with these feelings. I may take a lot of pride in my identities, but I’m still human and still need to take care of my emotional welfare! (This is really important because I’ve gotten involved in some social justice (LGBT) organizations now. If one is not careful, one can be easily overwhelmed by all the sad, even tragic, things we talk about. 🙁 )

So it’s truly a breath of fresh air when I read happy, light-hearted stories about friendship, love, and victory filled with laughter and good humor all around. 😀

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Christina Hawthorne April 18, 2017 at 6:02 pm

So, after 18 months hammering away at doctors to gain a referral to the pulmonologist I wanted to see I finally got it and he’s allowed me to make amazing gains in my health. Positive arc. If the story ended right now it’d be a happy ending. But, to some, that isn’t possible, I guess.

They say to write the book you always wanted to read. For those who don’t want happy endings I urge them to go write that book they want to read.

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Mark R Hunter April 18, 2017 at 10:52 pm

Hey, I take 911 calls for a living; I am ALL ABOUT escapism in my reading and writing. If I was an entertainer during the Great Depression, I’d be the one making those big, flashy musicals. Nothing wrong with escapism!

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Anne Kaelber April 20, 2017 at 8:09 pm

Hi Jami!

As you know, I’m stepping oh-so-slowly towards the idea of writing romance fiction — after having *insisted* I only write SF/F stories… So this post touches home in a really good way for me. Especially because I *love* a steamy HEA!

I read somewhere recently that romance is GOOD for marriages. What?! But then I thought about it. I’m reading some HOT stuff — and that pulls me back from the “day-to-day” which is Real Life: house chores and errands and doctors and what’s for dinner. “Sexy” (and sex, for that matter) isn’t in the body, but in the mind… and when you give the mind some tasty ideas, that percolates into your attitudes, your confidence. I’ve actually noticed a RISE in flirty cashiers and “oh, he just checked you out!” since reading Dannika Dark’s Seven series (not done yet!), Ann Aguirre’s The Leopard King and several of Lynsay Sands’ Argeneau Vampires books. I do like my romance paranormal!

(Side note: The beauty of reading in the ebook age is no embarrassing covers! I like the fruit covers on Maya Banks Sweet series WAY more than the covers on Tracy Wolff’s Ethan Frost series with the oiled, naked men.)

Maybe it’s “just” the current-WIP burnout I’m dealing with, but I’m more interested in brainstorming some romance right now, than figuring out this WIP. *rolls eyes at self*

Thanks for another excellent post!

Anne.

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Clare O'Beara April 21, 2017 at 10:24 am

Happy World Book Day!

I like to read different books at different times. Don’t underestimate the strength of neuroplasticity – a book you read wears a groove in your mind, through firing particular neurons along a track of fatty insulation. Following the same track is easier than breaking a new one. We writers take advantage of this with series, and genres do too.

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