Literature and Escapism
Amy Butterworth discusses the legitimacy of reading for the purposes of escapism
Escapist fiction gets a bad rap in our (post)postmodern era. It comes back to the age-old literary debate between genre fiction and literary fiction, where the former is shallow and easy, and the latter are ‘serious’ works. A distinguisher I often make between the two is: am I aware that I am currently reading? If the answer is ‘yes’, you have yourself a literary text – and congratulations, have made it into the world of the literati. Roland Barthes makes a similar distinction when he presents his theory on Readerly and Writerly texts in his essay S/Z – meaning can either be fixed as the plot washes over the reader, or reader is active in the constructing of meaning. He uses the phrase “ourselves writing”, asserting that stable meaning, and to some extent plot, does not exist until being read. Like the “tree falls in a forest” thought experiment, Barthes asks us, “if a novel is written and no one reads it, can there be any meaning?”
” we implore for a fantastical, mythical world (where people are allowed to stand closer than two metres) to wash over us and sanitise the reality of quarantine”
Yet now more than ever, people yearn for escape. The world is sh*t; we implore for a fantastical, mythical world (where people are allowed to stand closer than two metres) to wash over us and sanitise the reality of quarantine. For so long has our postmodern age begged for literary cynicism. At some point, in the age of David Foster Wallace, readers got bored of escaping. Novels like The Pale King came about, delineating snippets of life for employees at a regional tax-processing centre. It is self-admittedly boring. Worst of all, it is supposed to incite boredom in the reader, to see what happens to the reader’s mind and where it retreats to when faced with irrevocable boredom. And oh so overwhelmingly self-conscious – the novel features a character whose anxiety about sweating compels them to sweat, creating a vicious cycle of nervous perspiration. Was that supposed to make you, the reader, sweat too?
Yet amidst this return to the ‘real’, of allowing the mind to wander when reading, I cannot help but feel as though, Wallace wants us to be bored enough to return to those thoughts you were initially trying to escape. Without consent, he forces our minds back into the crevices we had been retreating from. For me, I choose when I want to worry about ‘reality’, Wallace takes away that choice.
“everyone has a differing propensity to deal with the realities of existence, no book should take away that choice”
I come back to the hierarchy of genre/escapist and literary fiction. Who exactly decides which novels garner the accolade of “literary”, of whether it produces a rich enough understanding of the world and meta-literature? A retreat into fantasy, or genre fiction, is not shameful – everyone has a differing propensity to deal with the realities of existence, no book should take away that choice. In fact, if speculative societies (i.e. escapist novels) are just replications of our current one, you are still perennially encountering the real – just in an unfamiliar outfit. Pandemics themselves have been fictionalised for decades; and here we are – real life is not too dissimilar from fiction. Just for an hour, I want my mind to not wander to the anxieties of the present – give me cosy and escapist, and let me return to the ‘realist’ (although no more ‘real’ than genre) novels when all this is over.