On escapism

What is it that makes me feel so uncomfortable to see the act of reading described as “escapism”?

The most obvious answer is that serious literature isn’t escapism. Serious literature is about real life, or it’s about nothing at all. Indeed, it can sometimes be quite the opposite of “escapism”: it can force the reader to face and to engage with matters they may prefer not to. The term “escapism” in this context seems to me not merely inadequate, but grossly misleading

But what about reading that isn’t serious?  Here again, I’m not sure that “escapism” is the right word. No-one will claim, I think, that the Sherlock Holmes stories or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse count as serious literature, and, yes, I find it an unmitigated delight to enter into these marvellous fictional worlds. But do I do so because I want to escape from my real life? No, I really don’t think so.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Have to disagree with this one. I had a very close friend who was in Vietnam who told me that reading offered an escape, and without it he did not know how he would have managed mentally. He was into 18th C picaresque novels and said that when he opened a book, for a short time at least, he was somewhere else.


    • Yes, you’re quite right – I was generalising too far. Fortunately, I have never been in circumstances as extreme as that of your friend: how I’d behave were I to be a soldier in wartime I really can’t begin to imagine. My comments really referred to those who claim to read for “escapism” despite leading the kind of life that the vast majority of the world’s population might envy. I should have made that clear.


  2. Don’t we all have things in our lives that we want to escape, however ostensibly comfortably we live? I’m fairly unflappable, but when (for instance) someone I love gets upset about something I become worried and depressed. It is at these times that I turn to Wodehouse, as I simply don’t have the emotional strength for anything else. (Perhaps I can now add McCall Smith to the roll of honour.) There is such comfort in this world that it reassures me. It may not be psychologically advisable in the long term for me to shy away from reality, but there we are. I read Wodehouse at other times, of course, and most of my reading is motivated in no way by motives of wishing to forget about my life, but there are definitely times when I read purely for escapism.


    • Hello Gareth, you say “most of my reading is motivated in no way by motives of wishing to forget about my life”. “Most”, I note, rather than “all”, which presumably means that there do exist books (by the likes of Wodehouse or by McCall Smith) that you read, as you say, “purely for escapism”.

      Speaking for myself, I enjoy entering these fictional worlds, but I honestly don’t think that I enjoy entering these fictional worlds because I want to forget about my own. This is not because I don’t have trials and tribulations in my life: of course I do, as does everyone else. But when things become particularly hard, then nothing, I find, not even Wodehouse, can help lighten the load. It’s like hearing a relentlessly cheerful and upbeat tune when all you want to do is to have a good cry – it just doesn’t work! However, as I say, I am speaking only for myself here, and it would of course be presumptuous to insist that this should apply to everyone. I am happy certainly to concede that people can, quite legitimately, read to escape from the pressures of one’s life, and that I shouldn’t have been so prescriptive on this point.

      Nonetheless, the use of the term “escapism” continues to worry me, especially when it comes to more serious literature. Once again, I am prepared to concede that there is no “should” about this – that if anyone wants to read even the most serious of literature because they want to escape from the pressures of their lives, then that is their privilege, and it would be impertinent of me to question it. But to read serious literature to escape from life does, for all that, seem to me a denial of what literature is about: it seems to confirm the image many seem to have of literature as something that is divorced from real life rather than something that addresses it – that literature no more than a diversion, and, therefore, doesn’t need to be taken seriously. And yes, this perception does continue to worry me.


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