Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is reading fiction a form of escapism?

I tend to bristle when I'm told that reading fiction is escapist. What I'm reacting to is the negative connotation that is attached to this line of thought. Because I usually feel attacked when someone says this, my immediate response is something along the lines of: "No it's not!" (I know, very mature ... and explanatory!) And then I fervently proceed to tell these people how much I've learned from reading fiction and how much it has expanded my thinking and allowed me a safe place from which to simulate various experiences and feelings. They never see it coming and usually start looking around trying to figure out how to get away from the crazy lady.

So ... today I was doing some professional reading and came across an interesting article about the connections between a reader and his or her reading choices. The article focuses on two reasons for our reading choices:
  • a gravitation to certain books because of our past and the resultant "palace of memory" that particular past creates, and ...
  • the relationship between ourselves and our environment (I'm using the term "environment" loosely here).
These reasons create a tendency in readers to choose books that allow us to either revisit or "deal with and resolve" experiences, or to reshape our world; fiction allows us the "space" to "simulate experiences outside [of ourselves] in a manner similar to that of airline pilots simulating the experience of flying an aircraft in flight simulators." Looked at in this way, I can agree that one purpose of my fiction reading is escapism. I escape to revisit pleasant experiences and places; I escape to find solace and affirmation; I escape in order to explore new worlds and ways of being. Yep, I definitely escape.

This article allowed me to come to terms with the escapist aspects of fiction reading in my own life. The term doesn't need to carry the negative connotation that I often find is the unspoken message. There are many good reasons (if one feels they need reasons) to escape into a good book!
"We frequently hear fiction reading described by both readers and fiction's detractors as escape.... However, we need to be clear about what readers are escaping from. They are escaping from a narrow, limiting view of the world and journeying to a place where it is possible to experience a deeper connection to our real selves and to live fully in our world."
Smith, Duncan. "Your Brain on Fiction." Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 49, issue 1, pp. 38-42.

So do you think reading fiction is a form of escapism? Why or why not? Do you think reading fiction to "escape" in some fashion is a negative thing?


  1. I read to escape. But, to escape in a meaningfully. There's no way I could escape into a Romance novel and be at peace with myself. I have to be caught up in the plot, or the characters, or find a lesson in the book somewhere. I think it's interesting how you mentioned reading to resolve things in our 'environment' (whether that's past or present)...I love when I learn something from a book, such as a way to handle an emotion or circumstance, or gain a fresh perspective on an old situation. I guess I'm not bothered when someone says I'm reading to escape. "Duh, why are you watching tv?," I want to reply.

  2. Very interesting topic, Terri. I've never thought of "fiction as escapism" as being a negative thing, but I also don't read to escape FROM something but to escape TO somewhere. Like you I've learned so many things from the books I've read, whether it be historical pasts or human emotions. I don't read to avoid my life, but rather I read to enhance it.

    And like Bellezza, I never quite get it when people choose to escape in front of the TV rather than in a good book.

  3. Ah yes... some things will remain a mystery... My friends can't understand how I find escape by reading books while they watch TV to do so. I do both, although I don't own a TV.

    I read fiction to escape meaningfully and to diversify my reading. Fiction can spark creativity and give an interesting perspective to the way we approach our work or life.

  4. That sounds like a fascinating article. I think I read fiction to escape sometimes (i.e.: my fluffy reads-Heyer) but I also read fiction to learn about different cultures, different times. I read fiction to revel in the beauty of language. And most of all, I read it because without it my life is unspeakably poorer!

  5. I really dislike the term "escapism". I agree that it doesn't HAVE to be negative, and I really like that quote you shared. But the thing is, 95% of the time it's used negatively - especially when applied to fantasy as opposed to "non-genre" fiction (but that could be the topic of a whole other rant :P)

    I think that "escapism", even in a positive sense, could be applied to so many human activities. Is going for a bike ride escapist? Is having a silly conversation with a friend in which you laugh at nothing in particular escapism? Is playing with our dogs? Going on a trip? Cooking a good meal? Okay, some of these examples work better than others :P And the way the supposed "escapism" works is different in each case. But so much of what we do helps us escape our own thoughts for a little while, and so much of what we do enlarges the limits of our lives.

    I guess my point is that using the term "escapism" for fiction alone often implies that the experiences reading exposes us to are inferior to other kinds of experiences, and I disagree with this. Reading is certainly different from doing and seeing things with our own eyes, but I don't think the emotional and intellectual reactions we have to stories are less valid or real than the ones we have to events in our lives. I wouldn't want to just read about things and not experience them, but I'd also definitely NOT want to just experience things and never read. They're different, but equality important in my life.

  6. Very interesting post. As you know, I'm not a big reader, especially of fiction, but I don't really know why. Perhaps I'm just not patient enough to wade through description what I think I could just see for myself. I don't know. But this gave me some insight into why other people really value fiction.

    My favorite novels have been satire for the clever use of imagery, language, and story to reveal a deeper message. I like figuring out the patterns and puzzles.

  7. Bellezza: Gaining a fresh perspective is a fantastic benefit of reading. I'm glad you mentioned that one!

    Trish: I agree with you that fiction reading is life enhancing; that is a good way to put it.

    Alice: I've gotten some of my best ideas after delving into some fiction (or listening to music). It can definitely spark creativity.

    Eva: Ooooo ... I love learning about other cultures through my reading too! And don't get me started on losing myself in beautiful language. I love it when I read a passage multiple times because the language is just so beautiful.

    Nymeth: I actually thought about you when I wrote this! After reading your posts about fantasy, I knew that you would have something to say and I looked forward to your comment! I totally agree with you that escapism can be applied to many human activities, in fact I do use that word in a very liberal way. As an example, I just escaped this evening as I watched the sun set and enjoyed the pleasant evening weather.

    Robin: Ah, insights into the minds of the book people! I like satire too. Do you like Jonathan Swift?

  8. You and I would be a pair! Two crazy ladies defending why we read fiction. :-) I admit that I can get a prickly when "accused" of reading for escapism, but then I stop myself because the truth is I do. For the very reasons you mention, among others. Like Trish, when it comes right down to it, I don't see myself escaping from something but rather to something.

    I also see Nymeth's point and find myself agreeing with her too.

  9. Interesting topic, interesting quote, interesting responses. Yes, I read for "meaningful escape"--that's where poetry and literary or"serious" or "classic" fiction,the challenging stuff (of any genre)comes in. But I also read for the pure joy of it, language that can take me to new understanding. The quote you pulled from that article is perfect. If we read to escape "from a narrow, limiting view of the world...to a place where it is possible to experience a deeper conection to our real selves and live [more]fully in our world,then reading becomes an essential escape. Which means that all art can be considered a form of escapism. Who's crazy?

    Oh, and I read mysteries, too. They are my chocolate.
    What a great post to have found on a Saturday night--thank you!

  10. I wonder what other word could be used in lieu of escapism that would not have the potential negative connotations? A word that communicates a place of restorative retreat or private adventure or perspective gathering... there's got to be one word. I bet the German language has something that would work. They're great with those words: weltanschuung, schadenfruede.

  11. I don't think I've read any Jonathan Swift. I was amused by Gulliver's Travels... but on TV!

    Sorry. I feel like I shouldn't be allowed to make a comment on your blog! I'll go away now.