If you had said the word “escapist” out loud fifty or sixty years ago, regardless of what you meant, you might be the subject of contempt. You might be attacked on the road. You could be ambushed at the bus stop. You could get a felony. Some YouTuber (even though there wasn’t YouTube back then) might defame you. To your listeners, you’d be some gutless slob who lives in their grandparents’ basement gorging themselves on cookies and cake.
And why, exactly, would you be the subject of so much ridicule and hatred? Well, to your listeners, it’s like campaigning for laziness to say the word with anything other than contempt. Someone who’s an “escapist” is probably someone who lives in a run-down apartment and working a half-pay job because they’re lazy.
But what exactly does “escapist” mean? Escapism is the act of using pleasure or diversion to momentarily forget troubles of the outside world. “No more work today–it’s been a long one. Time to get home to my hot dinner and after-dinner reading.”–That’s escapism. Escapism is burying your face in an immersive book, movie, or hobby that makes you forget about the outside world.
Back in Tolkien and Lewis’ day (the subject of which we’ll get to in a moment) “escapism” was regarded with much suspicion and was hated by much the same category of folks who despise all kinds of gamers. (wait, there are people like that out there? Apparently…) The only difference was that there weren’t lobbyists mounting up and waving signs with “OUTLAW VIDEO GAMES”: it was more of a quiet uneasiness.
Since the beginning of this article, you may have guessed that “escapism” is often associated with “fantasy literature”, and “fantasy literature” is virtually synonymous with names like Lewis and Tolkien. Suffice to say, both of them lived in a world of snooty kill-funs who regarded escapist fantasy literature as “juvenile”, “unfit for grown-ups” and “irresponsible” (not to mention “lazy”).
Tolkien had a word to two to say about escapist fiction:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”– J.R.R. Tolkien
Essentially, Tolkien used the line of reasoning that “escapism is necessary and that’d why we must do it”, which isn’t a bad argument. Of course, this is all based in his observations of reality itself: reality is “self-made misery” (to quote Tolkien himself). Humans make problems for other humans; it’s a fact of life. We cheat. We lie. We step on our neighbors’ toes and start wars. Life is, all-in-all, misery.
Escapism is a way to momentarily free ourselves from the captivity of misery. So it’s only natural and necessary that one should…well, take a holiday, if that makes sense. And not only should you be escaping now and then, you should take your friends with you (I hope you have enough money for movie tickets for all your friends…).
What Tolkien cited as a problem was desertion. This is perpetual escapism: we all have a duty to this world and certain responsibilities that we need to take care of. We cannot abandon our families, friends, and belongings in the name of “escapism”. Temporary escape is fine: desertion is not.
I guess this is more of a lesson to readers than writers. For readers, the lesson is clear: don’t be ashamed about taking a load off to read the latest installment of The Story Thieves (one of these days, I’ll get to the folly of refusing to read things because they are “childish”). For writers…try your hand at fiction, I guess? Definitely endeavor to write more escapist literature, though.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!