discussions genre stuff

Fantasy, Truth-telling, Escapism

An interesting debate in the Guardian on questioning whether or not fantasy can tell the truth, but it’s the notions of escapism that repeatedly crop up in such debates:

There is nothing wrong with escaping reality now and again. Like a well brewed ale, or a good malt whisky, a finely crafted escapist fantasy can be a thing of joy and beauty. But while the occasional tipple can be a good thing, most of us recognise that a bottle of Jameson’s a night is unhealthy for body, mind and soul.

An unfiltered diet of escapist fantasy blockbusters can be similarly unhealthy. As master anti-fantasist M John Harrison expresses it in his essay The Profession of Science Fiction while discussing the appeal of fantasy to young children terrified by adult life, “Many fantasy and SF readers are living out a prolonged childhood in which they retain that terror and erect – in collusion with professional writers who themselves often began as teenage daydreamers – powerful defences against it.”

And in the comments, the rather dated line (in internet years): “I think it’s undignified to read for the purposes of escape.”

There’s a whiff of the teenage rebel about these sentiments and, I’ll confess, when I was a much younger wannabe (unpublished) writer, for a few months I was all Hell Yeah and Fuck You to the Establishment (the Establishment being escapist fiction/commercial publishing). Then I came to realise that I’ve never quite understood the argument that reading for escape is undignified. And, as one of the comments states:

My natural reaction is to say, “I think it’s undignified to have sex in a bouncy castle, but it’s fun and I’m not going to stop just because you disapprove, sir.”

In the same way I’ll watch “Singin’ in the Rain” when I feel like it, and to hell with anyone who thinks that’s unhealthy and I should be spending my time watching Citizen Kane.


Here are a couple of issues I have with the dismissal of escapism. Firstly I would question: well, what exactly are readers escaping from, an Objectively existing external world? (The Objectivist undertones concern me.) Secondly I’d want to know, why would one do anything at all if it isn’t to escape/deviate from a given path in order to discover something else? So I would say that to read ‘to better oneself’ (the often opposing argument to escapism) is still actually reading for escapist pleasure, albeit a different pleasure and a different form of escapism (from oneself?).

Perhaps people might simply mean that reading for escapism means that it’s bad to switch off. It’s unhealthy for the mind, it’s lazy, or something like that. Without wanting to create a straw man of an argument, I remember reading someone on a blog or a message board years ago saying that they were serving on the front line in a war-zone, and reading for pleasure was all that helped them get to sleep at night. Perhaps, from the comfort of our own bedrooms, we can preach about the negatives of escapism – while we’ve currently nothing in our lives from which to escape. Escapism as a form of liberation seems highly dignified in some circumstances.

As far as fantasy is concerned, these aren’t the truths we’re looking for.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

39 replies on “Fantasy, Truth-telling, Escapism”

There’s another thing that always bothers me in such debates: why do people assume that, just because the world depicted in a story is not trying to imitate our “objective” world, it’s necessarily escapism?

And, closer to your own argument, what exactly defines escapism? Why is it, for example, that so many people are ready to swear that happy endings are not realistic? All right, in the end, everybody dies, but it is, in fact, possible to be happy before that. So why do people need to put down anything that’s not grim and mimetic, preferrably at the same time?

I think there’s another interesting discussion to be had about things like the happy-endings and escapism/realism. One thing that frustrates me is the suggestion that gritty/blood & guts/depressing fantasy automatically equals adult/realism, for example.

You could of course turn the argument in Damien G. Walter’s article on its head and ask:

Is it dangerous that people lack the imagination, empathy and intelligence to relate a work of fiction to reality if it’s not set in our world?

As an example, in my opinion the best book ever written about how religion functions is Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. I think it should be required reading in school. Dismissing it because it is set in a fantasy world and contains humor shows a total lack of understanding about what it is about.

I’ve always seen the purpose of Fantasy, with Robert Jordan, David Farland, and Ursula K. Le Guin to name a few, as an educational experience. I walk into the Fantasy world for the sole purpose to discover what the said world’s creator (author) has to say about this world. Sometimes it can be simple lessons about life, and at times even the Fantasy world can inflict pain, but one thing I’m almost sure we all do, we finish the book with a new insight on life.

Milena – I totally agree, litfic can be as complete a truth vacuum as fantasy can.

I’ve always found Harrison’s argument against escapist reading weird. Reading fantasy leaves me feeling adventurous, optimistic, empowered and passionately curious. All of which are feelings I kinda think you need if you’re going to change anyone’s life at all.

I don’t think it’s realistic to think that fantasy stories are ever going to convince people that there’s nothing in the world that needs changing, but it might leave them feeling a little more like they *can* change it.

Weirdmage – indeed. Isn’t it strange that the question is asked so rarely?

Brandon – yeah, and I think the moment you start to pick a book apart, it cease to be escapism (whatever it is). And I can’t think of a genre that is picked apart much more than SFF (in terms of the number of people doing the picking).

Tom – what a lovely way of putting it.

The Harrison quote is pretty funny.

My spouse and I were just discussing this morning, in a different context, how some people seem to feel they really can only define themselves by erecting a hierarchy in which they can feel themselves better than someone else.

If we avoid all fantasy so as to better ourselves, does that mean that Greek and Roman mythology are out? How about Hindu mythology? Or traditional Native American stories? I’ve always found it fascinating that almost all mythology and folklore would be shelved in the fantasy section of bookstores if it were the creation of contemporary authors… and that’s not even mentioning the bible. Of course that doesn’t have so much as a hint of fantasy in it.

@ DJ. Hold up, I beg to differ. As a Baptist-Christian, Deacon, and Fantasy Reader, there are a ton of fantastical events in the Bible aside from what we commonly know. Go pick up and read it twice, or thrice.
@Mark: Sorry about the above, it just irks me.

The person defies or embraces escapism in its various forms, not the book. Being a reader of Viriconium or Roberto Bolano or John Updike or whatever doesn’t mean you’re bettering the world unless you, you know, actively do something to change the world for the better. Similarly, I’d be willing to bet that out there somewhere is a brain surgeon or Peace Corps member or environmental activist or whatever who loves to keep up with the latest Forgotten Realms release. And seriously, bragging how you’re more grown up than someone else? I guess the Serious Literature Only crowd and the Tea Party have at least one thing in common after all…

I love the works of M. John Harrison et al. But most often the escapism debate seems pretty silly. Every book is escapist to a degree.

Fiction, like all art, holds up a mirror to reality. The trick of the mirror is to show us ourselves from another angle. So what we’re escaping – in all fiction I believe – is our own point of view. Escapism is therefore an intrinsic part of fiction, not an optional extra. And is not all fiction fantasy?

Graham – I totally agree, all fiction constitutes a world that doesn’t exist, full of people who don’t exist, doing things they didn’t really do.

Adam – doesn’t *all* fiction need to tell the truth in some ways, echo the reader’s experience in some fashions in order to be believable enough to escape into, though?

This topic is skating very close to the old Literary vs Genre fiction debate. Lit snobs just like looking down their noses at us genre fans. All fiction reading is for pleasure, whether it’s feeding the soul on a deeper level or not. All reading is escapism, because you know you should be doing something else instead – at least that’s what my wife tells me.

Tom: “doesn’t *all* fiction need to tell the truth in some ways, echo the reader’s experience in some fashions in order to be believable enough to escape into, though?

Flattering the readers’ preconceptions and prejudices isn’t the same thing as telling them the truth.

Perhaps if the poor fellow in a warzone had not retreated to escapist fiction, he might have instead thought about whether that warzone was the right place to be.

Sometimes people are stuck in bad situations they need to escape from. But more often, people are escaping instead of taking action to alleviate their bad situation. No one is saying that escapist reads are a bad thing in a balanced way, but most people realise that a diet of nothing but escapism is unhealthy. And also quite common in our mass media age, where so much art is escapist in nature.

I’d like to see more fantasy that attempts to reveal truth, and not just create escapist experiences, written, and more importantly published.

I’m the person that quoted M. John Harrison’s undignified line on the Guardian Book Blog. Further down the thread I did add that I would be more likely to say, “I think it’s undignified to read *only* for the purpose of escape.”

As a definition of escapism I use is this: “Escapism is mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation, as an “escape” from the perceived unpleasant or banal aspects of daily life.”

I do take a very literal view on the concept, and I personally for entertainment read, both fiction and non-fiction, for reasons which aren’t just distraction from daily life.

Weirdmage – I really dislike that question. It gets very close to the argument from a few months ago about if SF fans are smarter than Fantasy fans. Would not a better question be to ask why different readers enjoy reading about imagined worlds while other readers enjoy reading more about things inspired by the real world? Because I’m quite enjoying the current issue of Granta about aliens and its not about aliens from another world, so that’d be interesting to explore. I’d hope that it wasn’t a lack of empathy, imagination or intelligence that meant I enjoyed it.

Darren Guest – But all fiction reading isn’t for pleasure! Just ask any English graduate.

@Will Ellwood

I think my question is valid because it addresses why people can’t see real world issues in a made up world, and dismiss it as escapism. I’m in no way saying that reading about the real world constitutes a lack of imagination, empathy or intelligence. But if you can’t see parallels between SFF (Speculative Fiction) and the real world, because the setting is a secondary world or another planet, then I’d say that would be an issue.

@Damien G. Walter

“I’d like to see more fantasy that attempts to reveal truth, and not just create escapist experiences, written, and more importantly published.”

I have no idea what kind of fantasy you read, but you may want to branch out a bit. I don’t find any lack of comments and revelations about the real world in most of the fantasy I read. I mentioned Small Gods by Terry Pratchett above, have you read that? Most other books by Pratchett would be a good starting place too.

I also can’t help but notice that you didn’t address any of the commenter’s here who disagree with your Guardian article, and instead restated what you said in the article we were already discussing.

@weirdmage – yes, I have read Small Gods. It’s an excellent book. I read *very* widely across genre and literary fiction, and I would rate Small Gods right up there in my top few dozen books. I’m not anti-fantasy, or anti-genre. I frequently defend genre in various forums. I’m also a critic of genre. I think both are equally important.

@Damien G. Walter

I agree that being critical of any genre of book, or other work of fiction for that matter, is important.
And thanks for clarifying your stance on genre. You came across as very one-sided in the Guardian article and above, it’s good to see that you are not. 🙂

If you substituted the word “drugs” for “fantasy” in most of these discussions, the arguments would be the same as those used in newspaper and magazine articles of the 1960s. “Grown-ups deal with grim realities instead of trying to escape reality with ______.” “If you use _____ to escape from reality, you’ll never become politically engaged and find your place in the struggle to change it.” “The experience of _____ is wish-fulfillment, illusion, denial, retreat into infantilism.” Etc.
And there’s a fairly loud contingent that would insert the word “religion” into the same placeholder in the above sentences as well.
We could dismiss as escapism any journey a person takes, mental or physical, away from the ordinary and into the odd, the different, the unusual. Or we could look upon it as an opportunity for that person to expand his or her mental horizons, to briefly shake off old habits of thought, to experience a little transcendence and then return to the familiar world with new eyes and a broader perspective. There and back again. Or the shaman’s journey.
If anything should be decried in all this, it should be getting “stuck” in a pattern of repeated indulgence in the same escape, a literary diet of 900 page epic fantasies to the exclusion of all else, compulsive drug-taking, extremes of prayer or meditation, etc. But the same danger exists for the supposed realists. One can become just as easily “stuck” in bizarre faiths that the consensus of the intelligentsia treats as sober realism at the time. If we look at the last century we can only marvel at the extremes of engagement and action that so many people devoted to temperance, eugenics, Bolshevism, Freudianism, and a host of other once fashionable beliefs. The best course is to stay out of mental straitjackets, and the best fantasy helps us do that.

“One thing that frustrates me is the suggestion that gritty/blood & guts/depressing fantasy automatically equals adult/realism, for example.”

Amen, brother.

On the M. John Harrison quote, I think it’s worth noting that dignity is a description of how one is perceived by others. The counter to his argument reads “I think reading for purpose of increased social status is adolescent.”

I think something a lot of these guys fail to consider.

That, up to 600 years ago or so.. when some one wrote a story down.. it was almost assuredly to have some form of fantastic element. They included them in stories set in the real world, and I’d assume that this meant most of those people who read the books probably figured the stuff in them was probable, plausible and could indeed be happening. in other words, Achilles really was the son of a god, cotton really did come off a small rat like animal, Beowulf really did swim for miles in a chain maille hauberk and fight a demon whilst starkers… In other words.. the fantasy was real. Or they thought it was.

Now, we comfortably separate the real and unreal. Our brains still want that element of unreal, and so we feed it with ‘Escapist’ novels.. that allows us to focus on the stuff that is really real.. without saying gods caused a volcano or that anything else.. Not all of us have reached this point of compartmentalization however… and so some are left in the old method of wrapping it all up in one.. and the other simply shuts out all but one… both tend to be against the existence of any other organizational method.

My problem with the basic premise is that it strikes me as being, at root, rather condescending. There seems to be an embedded assumption about one’s ability to know why people read what they do and how those readers negotiate what they’re reading and its relationship to the rest of their lives and their understanding of the world they live in.

Rex: I’d be hesitant to assume that we know what people in the past thought probable and plausible, except where we have actual evidence. The presence of a story like Beowulf does not negate the possibility that the people who told/heard the story knew it was a story.

Furthermore, as someone who lives in the USA right now, I must note that a significant minority of Americans, according to surveys, apparently think that humans coexisted with dinosaurs.

A remarkably good discussion here, so thanks for chipping in, everyone.

Daniel – thanks for stopping by and expressing that so eloquently.

Kate – I think that survey speaks volumes about preconceptions of reality, and brings me back to that point of Objectivism seeming to be bound within the original quote.

Paul – what an eye-opening exchange!

And Will Ellwood – thanks for adding to your original sentiments there.

I feel I should add that I am a fan of M John Harrison’s fiction – I think he’s an immensely powerful writer, and I find his opinions on things fascinating. This isn’t something I have a gut reaction to, given the internet often leads us down such a path, but I just can’t help pick that sentiment apart.

Thats true Kate . Not having evidence to say they did, would normally negate being able to say something in a scientific or scholarly field, since its unverifiable.

However since I’m neither a scientist or a scholar, having no evidence to say they did, to me is the same as having no evidence to say they didn’t. Even if the evidence existed I’d still be hesitant to accept it fully.. I dislike anyone who is too over-zealously dogmatic. I hate to sound like Donald Rumsfield.. but the absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence.

I realize that a minority of American’s do believe that.. Just like a minority believed a space ship was hiding behind the Hale-Bop comet or that David Korressh was the reborn Christ. A minority of a lot of various peoples all over the world believe a lot of really strange things. But I think thats why I said that some people have not yet learned to compartmentalize at all and thus include fantastical elements in their day to day lives. So i would guess then that if people are like that now.. theres always been some % of people like that.. But it would make sense that the % used to be higher, and is now lower due to increase in education.

I guess if I had too you would have 4 types of people in my concept.
1) Those who compartmentalize and never venture into the other compartments, for various reasons.
2) those who compartmentalize and sometimes or frequently venture into them, for various reasons.
3) those who don’t or can’t compartmentalize at all, and thus believe all sorts of odd things, like hidden comet spaceships, or that America is putting hallucinogens in their water supply.
4) those who formerly compartmentalized but lost the ability to do so and are now stuck with them freely mixing and now refer to themselves in the 3rd person and make statements such as comparing themselves “To an F-8 bro!”

Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely, and if you are, in fact, the Kate Elliot who wrote the Crown of Stars.. I realize you must have put a considerable amount of time into researching the dark and middle ages.. so I’ll admit I probably don’t know as much about it as you do..

Ugh, debate that is completely skewed because of language.

All forms of culture deal with truth and provide a perspective. So from my point of view escapism doesn’t sit in a specific position when in relation to “truth”. Escapism and truth do not define common ground, and so do not belong to a discussion together.

INSTEAD. The debate is inherited from something different.

There is an issue about how hard you expect your audience to work, and how commercial (wider, shallower) is your target.

So I think there may be a more interesting discussion about “truth” and “escapism” if you replace the latter with a consideration about the desired “commitment” from the audience.

I had this monstrosity of a post all drafted until I realized that I’d boiled all my thoughts down in a couple of paragraphs at the end, haha. (Writing essays still has its uses…)

Okay, so I went back and read what Mr. Harrison originally said here: I think I get what he’s saying now. Will’s thoughts sum it up very nicely, I think, so I won’t rehash that. However, the idea that fantasy is simply child’s play is very much an idea that prevails today. Though, here’s how I see it:

I write fantasy—I yearn to “escape”—because I am not altogether satisfied with “reality.” I long to reach for that which does not exist, I think, because I believe there is more to reality than what I can perceive and make sense of. A hidden truth, if you will.

Sure, you can write fantasy for fantasy’s sake, for the sake of escaping, but that would be childish. Though, writing fantasy to discover something more… That kind of fantasy isn’t just for kids; it really is a sophisticated endeavor. It’s about discovering the truth behind the veil of reality, something all of humanity does everyday; religion is a prime example of this.

So yes, I think it’s possible to surmise truth from fantasy—if only your own perception of truth, truth as you understand it.

In any case, truth is an ever-shifting thing for us temporal creatures, and you kind of have to be willing to change along with it if you hope to keep up with “reality.” (Perhaps this is why a minority of people believe in things that the majority does not?)


alas, I am that Kate Elliott. But the actual expert in things medieval is my sister (and other scholars) who are actual medievalists, and it is from her I get that particular observation. I agree that there are all kinds of people, who believe a great range of things.

On a broader note, I think as human beings we are storytellers and have been for a long time. I agree with the commenter(s) above who point out that much of the older literature that has survived falls into what we might define as “the fantastic.” I think people are perfectly capable of reading fantasy literature to entertain themselves, if they so wish, and then go about their adult lives without damage. That someone feels free to define what is healthy or unhealthy, or dignified or undignified, in this kind of subjective situation strikes me as, well, remarkably puritanical.

Ah, well, you know, I think M. John Harrison is a pretty smart guy, and like Aristotle he would probably say that you have to differentiate between dignified/honourable activities which are based on exterior fame and those which are of inherent dignity. But given that, you could still disagree with him in each particular case. Or you might argue that he’s actually taking the former for the latter. Or that he simply overlooks something. Just saying. Otherwise everything’s cool.

“Perhaps if the poor fellow in a warzone had not retreated to escapist fiction, he might have instead thought about whether that warzone was the right place to be.”

That left a really nasty taste in my mouth. I don’t know what sort of circumstances lead said soldier to sign-up and the above comment just sort seems like it was in poor tase.

Also, wasn’t it a “poor fellow in a warzone” that fathered the fantasy genre (in a sense)?

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