Escapism

Article published on January 25, 2013.

In their thoroughly instructive essay on the subject, Ann Maxwell and Elizabeth Lowell observed how escapism works for genre readers. Crime fiction fans, they say, escape into a world in which “problems can be solved through intelligence and effort.”  As a lover of crime writing, I can personally attest to the truth of this observation. However, if we’re to interpret escapism as the seeking of a diversion from everyday life, it becomes clear that the escapist tag belongs on far more literature than just crime.

Some months ago, I recall a conversation with Nudge supremo Simon Appleby, in which we discussed z-list autobiographies. After much scorn had been poured on their readership, we were forced to concede that the same ignoble escapist urge had brought us to our own reading material at the time. For me, it was Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job; for him, Geoffrey Roberts’ The Life of Georgy Zhukov.

It’s not hard to imagine escaping into General Zhukov’s world. The Stalinist intrigue, the narrative of the war on the Eastern Front; from the safe distance of the post-Cold War era, reading about the life of Zhukov has is less about engaging with reality than it is about enjoying a good story with plenty of facts thrown in. Studying history can provide a framework for understanding the present, no doubt – but is it such a stretch to say the same of Sjowall and Wahloo, or Agatha Christie? I for one don’t think so.

So what of my own reading material at the time, the contemporary journalism of Inside Job? Surely nothing could be less escapist than a number-heavy current affairs piece on the economic crisis? Don’t be so sure. Yet again, there is the strong narrative as implied by the heisty title. Bankers stealing billions in broad daylight and getting away clean. Even if it were less explosive though, what did I plan on doing with the information once I’d amassed it? Without any appetite for direct action, this wasn’t engaging with reality, it was informative but vicarious thrill-seeking.

So if journalism and historical non-fiction can be used to escape the every day, then which branches of literature can’t? All fiction, even at its most pessimistic and earthy, is an attempt to grasp something beyond the self, and thus beyond the everyday. Fatigued from a generation or more of miserablist literature, we could be forgiven for forgetting the value of Dickens’ unvarnished, authentic tales of urban poverty in helping contemporary readers escape from gilded ignorance.

Ultimately though, if escapism is pleasure-seeking through diversion, then its defined not by the material, but by the attitude of the reader. If you enjoy it, it’s escapism. So perhaps as crime lovers we should turn the label into a badge of honour. Clearly, people associate our chosen genre with escapism purely because it’s so damned enjoyable…

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