Is escapism harmless?
Can you can tell when times have got tougher by the kind of books and entertainment people choose?
I’d love to see a proper study done with graphs and spreadsheets and percentages. Ones that show the rise of the feel-good-factor musicals proportionate to the plummeting of pay packets, or the popularity of happy-ever-after romances to the surge in divorces.
I have a theory. One of those that is completely unsubstantiated and without any evidence but my own musings. But as I said, I don’t think anyone has done a definitive study yet.
My theory is that when life becomes tougher for us here in the West, we turn more to entertainment that is pure escapism. People seek something that will block out their reality for a few hours, and leave them with a lingering glow of hopefulness. Books that transport you to another life, or even another world, and make you forget about your own issues.
On this level, virtually all literature aims to be escapist in some fashion, to lift you out of your life and into that of the text. It’s the sign of success for a novelist if you make people miss buses, be late for things or stay up half the night to finish.
That’s only half the story, though. Like a good holiday, a good book or film also returns you to your reality better able and prepared to cope with new challenges. This, to me, is the problem with escapism. You don’t want to go back, you remain with half of your self still locked in that world. I’m not talking about a book or film that haunts you but rather something more visceral. Something that gets deep inside and makes you constantly hanker back, wishing you were ‘there’, wishing that your life was as romantic or exciting and never doing more than wishing and hankering. Romantic novels rarely give a blueprint for reproducing better relationships. High-octane musicals seldom offer any realistic view of working towards goals: for every Billy Eliot who makes it, there are a thousand who never do. None of us want to imagine ourselves as the ones who didn’t make the grade. Yet we are encouraged to ‘believe in ourselves’, to believe that we are the ones, the magic ones, who are the stars of the show.
Coming back to ordinary life after this sort of experience is inevitably going to be a downer. So. What do you do? Do you sit down, analyse what you need to do to achieve any of the things you’d like in your life, swallow hard at how long, hard and tough the road will be and then get on with it? In all probability, no. You’re going to reach for another sweetie in the form of whatever it was gave you the buzz in the first place. It’s human nature. It’s the pleasure principle; we do again and again the things that gave us our jollies. And that’s fine if all you want to do is dream.
But while I enjoy the odd moment of escapism (bear in mind I’m working my way through various DVD box-sets at present including the X Files) I’ve never liked either romantic fiction or musicals. In fact, with a few exceptions (notably Fiddler on the Roof and a couple of others) I’d rather sit in a bath of cold custard than watch a musical I haven’t got the option to stop when I find my ability to suspend disbelief has vanished. There are lots of reasons why I loathe romance (and those are for another post, perhaps) but I seem to be in a very small minority in my dislike. Most people love it. There are conventions used when writing romance. A HEA is in most cases considered obligatory (happy ever after) or at the least a Happy For Now, because (note italics) this is what people want to read. They don’t want to read about relationships that remotely resemble the ones they experience in real life because this is not why they are reading.
There’s a saying (used extensively as a kind of catchphrase in several novels of Susan Howatch): when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It speaks for itself. The world will not fix itself. If we all retreat into escapism where one distraction from suffering merges seamlessly into another, there will be no change, either in our own lives or in that of the world. Escapism is only harmless when it is a holiday from ordinary reality, a time out for refreshing and recovering and not somewhere where in essence we start living because it’s so much nicer in Cloud Cuckoo Land than it is right here.