Is escapism harmless?

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. 

9 thoughts on “Is escapism harmless?

  1. I found myself agreeing with much of what you had to say. I, too, have little interest in musicals. (One of my ‘yes’ musicals is Cabaret) And I don’t read straight ‘romance’ novels. Reaching out for something in tough times is very real. You see it also in sporting heroes. Don Bradman and Phar Lap were both legends during the Great Depression, loved by the common man for the champions they were. In recent (hard) times, Back Caviar has become another icon. They offered a ray of hope, that the darkness does not cover all, there can still be champions. Something for people to aspire to.

    However, I can’t agree with you about escapism. I think MOST people use escapism as just that; a means of escaping, if only for a little while, their mundane world. There’s nothing wrong with that. And once again, perhaps people find something in (say) romance novels to which they may aspire. People who become lost, or trapped, in ‘unreality’ have, in my view, a mental disorder.


  2. Through your link to Wikki I just rediscovered a German word … Wolkenkuckucksheim … This makes my day 🙂
    I escape. When I feel down and want to shift my mood I might look for a feel- good movie, irrespective of the fact many annoy me, like Mama Mia. I do like some comedians, the warm wit of extraordinary people, like Groucho:


  3. Pingback: The Great Gatsby – a Capacity for Hopefulness, Sparkling Decadence, and Tragedy That Touches Us All | S.C.Skillman Blog

  4. Thank you for this excellent post. It inspired me for my own post, where I referred to you, and linked to your blog: You make some very good points about escapism,and life’s toughness. I was reminded of one reviewer’s reaction to my novel Mystical Circles (which comes under the category of romantic suspense). This reader was quite upset by my novel,and gave it a low star-rating. My novel had defeated her expectations, because it refers to mental health problems. She made a clear statement in her review|: “I read for escapism”. She didn’t want to be reminded of real-life problems in a novel.


    • Sadly this is quite common. I’ve read a lot of reviews where this statement is made as a reason for slating a book. Just shows people are really quite immature, I guess.


  5. My husband and I are more likely to watch a Tarkovsky film or a documentary about Afghanistan when we’re feeling really low. There’s something about the immense suffering of others that makes ours seem easier to bear. Granted, there are times when our energy levels require something soft and fluffy; then Doris Day or episodes of Leave It To Beaver are just the ticket.


    • That’s a very interesting take on it. My husband likes watching the Swedish detective series Wallander when he’s a bit down. Same reason, I think!


      • I have a friend who watches horror films in order to get to sleep. She isn’t a violent person, quite the contrary. She says it’s because they have no connection with her own reality. Any other genre takes her into thoughts of her own life and she is unable to sleep.


  6. I’m all for escapism myself. As you might guess from my blog, which is named ‘The Reality Escape Committee!’. However, I think that the best of literature – and films, perhaps – does more than give people a short respite from the world: they can offer encouragement – that is, the giving of courage – to face challenges in the real world. Which, by the way, is something I see in your books, Vivienne, which are both realistic and hope-full.

    Liked by 1 person

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