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.
“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?Pin It