In Praise of Escapism

By Gail Z. Martin

I read a lot of both fiction and non-fiction. When I read non-fiction, I read to learn and sometimes that takes me into unhappy or unpleasant territory. Many a time when I’ve finished a non-fiction book about some depressing period in history or an analysis of one of the world’s ills, I’ve felt worse than when I started the book. I accept that as the trade-off for gaining knowledge that I need for a purpose. That kind of reading is akin to work—I don’t do it for fun.

But when I read fiction in my limited spare time, I want to have fun. I want a book or a movie or even a TV show to get me away from the cares of the real world for a little bit, to thrill me and let me see the good guys come out ahead. I unabashedly want a dose of escapism, and frankly I think escapism gets a bad rap.

I’ve heard some reviewers or some “influential” thinkers dismiss a book or a movie as “mere escapism,” as if there was something unhealthy about wanting a mental vacation from the cares of everyday life. In some circles, it’s not cool to admit having read a book that won’t out-tragedy or out-angst everyone else’s reading list. But the truth is, I can get tragedy and angst by turning on the evening news. There’s no shortage of it, and wallowing in it doesn’t mean you’re more sophisticated.

In a country that consumes more than its share of prescription antidepressants, alcohol, pot and illegal drugs, getting your break from reality in the pages of a book seems like a sane and reasonable choice.

Recently, I read an interview with a very famous author who went on record disliking happily-ever-after endings and having the good guys win and the bad guys lose. The author didn’t think that was realistic. And I thought, how sad.

I immediately thought of the iconic pictures of the spontaneous celebrations at the end of World War II when total strangers danced and kissed in the streets of New York City. There were tickertape parades and lots of champagne corks (and beer bottle tops) popping as the people who lived through an awful darkness celebrated the fact that the good guys won and the bad guys lost and it felt like happily-ever-after.

And of course, after the confetti was swept up and people slept off the hangover, we woke up to the Cold War, but that was a story for another book.

See, we all have “happily-ever-after” moments in life, times when—just for an hour or a day or a few lucky weeks or years—the good guys win and the bad guys lose. You get married, have a child, get a diploma, get your dream job, build a home, buy a dog, go on the perfect vacation, get back a medical test that says the cancer is in remission, find out the cyst is benign. And you dance and kiss someone and pop a few corks and in that wonderful moment, the good guys come out on top and it feels like happily-ever-after.

Of course, tomorrow there will be bills to pay and car repairs and hassles at work and more bad guys and battles, because the story continues.

And that is why I don’t find it “unrealistic” when a book ends on a high note. Because the author is picking an arbitrary point in time for the ending. End the book a day earlier, and the skies might still be dark and uncertain. End the book two weeks later, and there will be new threats. But end in the moment of celebration when one threat has been overcome and the characters are taking a well-deserved victory lap, and it’s made all the sweeter because we know that “ever-after” is ephemeral.

We live in a culture that feasts on the dark, bitter, ironic, and unhappy. Personally, I think it’s partly the voyeurism of a generation that hasn’t had to live through any real hardship, and partly the old “freak show” effect where seeing someone less fortunate makes the viewer say, “wow, my life sucks but at least it’s not that bad!” Neither is a particularly healthy world view. There’s a strain of schadenfreude that runs wide in our culture, loving the chance to say “I told you so” when someone stumbles or a hero fails. Some people have given up in believing in heroes or good guys because they don’t want to be disappointed, which is like giving up on falling in love because the divorce rate is 60%.

Which brings me back to escapism. Why the hell not? How is it more adult to pop a Prozac than read a book with a happy ending, or see a movie that makes you want to cheer and shout? I do believe that you become what you feed your mind. Feed it depressing stories full of morally bankrupt people and you’re not likely to feel chipper and ready to take on the next challenge. If I have to choose, I’ll take happy over fashionable every time. Escapism is a healthy, well-adjusted, no-side-effects, non-damaging response to the ups and downs of everyday life.

I’ve had letters from readers who read my books while sitting vigil at a bedside in a hospital, or in a tent somewhere during a military action with shellfire in the distance. They thanked me for giving them somewhere to escape into, a place where—at least for a moment in time—they knew who the good guys were, a hard and desperate struggle turned out to be worth the cost of the scars and blood, and things ended up more right than not.

In my dark moments, reading about characters who struggled through desperate times and won helped me make it out of my own discouragement. Those happily-ever-after (at least for a while) endings, those stories where you could tell the good guys from the bad guys, they are the pick-me-up after a stressful day or a hard week.

So here’s to escapism. Long may it live happily-ever-after.

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