Escapism versus Literature

I gave up reading science fiction this summer. While I enjoy Heinlein and Philip K. Dick, among other old masters of the genre, I cannot abide by contemporary SF and fantasy anymore. Where Dick, Heinlein, Asimov, and others used the genre to discuss other issues, the glut of SF is pure escapism. It confuses the trappings (or “wallpaper” as Bret Easton Ellis would say) for the core ideas of the story. There is room for entertainment and escapism when it comes to literature for children. They do not have an outlet for doing amazing things. It’s natural for them to latch onto super heroes, science fiction, and other fantastical stories. As an adult, your job is  to confront life. Ideally, adult fictions allows you explore the responsibilities and complexities of life, but too much of it now is devoted to escapist entertainment. Modern entertainment does not tell us to confront life; rather, it tells us to eschew real world issues and become absorbed in a fantastic scenario for a set amount of time after which we return to our lives no better informed or equipped to handle that life.

It is one thing to use the conventions of a genre or entertainment to explore something deeper, but genre fiction at its worst assumes the conventions of the story are the point. I will not say modern literary fiction is any better; frankly, it is not. Both so-called literary fiction and genre has little meaning the style of the respective genre. “Literary” fiction has just as many cliches and tropes as a detective novel or space opera.

Modern escapist entertainment is anti-intellectual, except when it comes to certain left-wing dogma, especially in science fiction.  It is incorrect to assume that the correct reaction to this is produce stories that are sole entertainment. Just because there is an issue with far-left “message” fiction does not mean that novels of ideas are inherently bad. Presenting controversial ideas in fiction is not diametrically opposed to telling a good story.

Ideally, good art should reflect life and deliver some truth about it. As John Gardner wrote in On Moral Fiction:

We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values…instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. (p. 19)

Entertainment does not follow this creed per se. Pure entertainment gives the viewer a limited emotional rush, regardless of whether it is an action narrative or romantic comedy. In both cases, neither example searches for truth. While a narrative which uses the conventions of either genre can deliver truth or explore real issues, one devoted to pure entertainment does not. Entertainment is designed to take you out of the real world, rather than explore it. There is an overload of entertainment. Television and movies are predominantly escapist stories you can binge watch, much like the New York Times bestseller list on any given week.

Literature is a platform for an exploration of the human experience. It should entertain, of course. Pure entertainment, however, is a waste of a reader’s time. It reduces a novel or story to disposable junk food, where a story is not something to return to but just another media to be consumed and then tossed away.



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