Plan Your Escape

Escapist fiction is defined by Wikipedia as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” The term is often wielded like a derogatory club against works deemed unworthy by fanatical devotees of “literary fiction,” works that, according to Wikipedia, have “merit…involve social commentary or political criticism or focus on the human condition…and is often more focused on themes than on plot…” Literary fiction boasts of “analyzing reality” while escapist fiction, also known as popular or genre fiction, aims to escape reality. I love escapist fiction without apology. I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading a book that will never be nominated for a Pulitzer or a Nobel or a Man Booker prize. I’ve nothing against prize-winning works of great lit-tra-chure, except the prodigious heft of some of the hardback editions. I even read, and enjoy, literary novels. Several claim spots in my (out of control) TBR pile. But when I do read literary novels, I choose them based on the story they tell, not because of some important message the critics ensure me is waiting to be discovered in the 982 pages. I don’t need, nor do I especially want, my fiction to mirror or analyze society. That’s what non-fiction is for. I read the news to find out what’s going in the world. (Granted, it’s become difficult to distinguish between news and fiction these days. Thanks, Interweb.) If I want more depth or detail than a newspaper article can provide I turn to the non-fiction section of the bookstore. Non-fiction has come a long way since the days when it all tended to read like dust-dry textbooks. It’s become “creative” and often reads like a novel. I read fiction for entertainment. There, I said it. I feel no shame. Entertainment is not bad. Humans have always sought entertainment. True, we’ve created some sick forms of entertainment over the centuries but we’ve come up with some good stuff, too. Like fiction. I’m not hiding my head in the sand when I seek entertainment in fiction. I’m not trying to pretend what’s happening in the world isn’t happening. I know what’s going on. You can’t turn on a TV or open a social media feed or, depending on where you live/who you work for/what you look like/where you worship/who you love, step outside your door without getting a wallop of reality right upside your head. Sometimes I get so much reality my head hurts. I want to scream. I often cuss. Worse, I start to think things that make me worry I’m turning into a person I wouldn’t like very much. I need to get away from reality to save my sanity. I need to be entertained. I need to lose myself. I need to escape on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo or down a rabbit hole with Alice. I need to bring murderers to justice with Marple and Poirot. I need to poke a finger in bureaucracy’s eye while saving the universe with Jame Retief. Of course, genre fiction can have “literary merit”. Many literary novelists have jumped the pop fiction fence and created “cross-genre” or “genre blurring” works that leave bookstores scratching their heads about where to shelve them and prize committees fielding complaints about prizes being awarded to books that are “too popular.” A popular book can make a profound statement about our society and the human condition. Science fiction has a tradition of skewering societal norms and trends. Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Laumer’s Retief series are just a few sci-fi novels that do this in entertaining (and in Laumer’s case, hysterical) ways. It’s possible to be capital-m-Meaningful and entertaining at the same time. For example, a fictional detective can solve a fictional crime while saying something about the society in which a particular victim succumbs to that particular crime. Plot doesn’t have to be sacrificed at the altar of significance. So, genre fiction, more power to you. Keep teaching us while you entertain. But, mostly, entertain. Tell me a good story. As Sana Hussain said in her essay, “Literary or Not: The Reality of Escapist Fiction,” let me “doff the burden of [my] problems and inhabit a world…that makes up for the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the real world by offering rationality and resolution.” Bring order to chaos. Strike a blow for truth and justice. Let the good guy win. Remind me life isn’t always as twisted and ugly and painful as it seems. Entertain me. My overwhelmed brain and bruised soul thank you. Do you think the escapist vs literary debate is artificial? Is escapist a bad word? Why do you read escapist fiction? 

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