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Is fantasy escapism?

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  • Is fantasy escapism?

    Fantasy fiction is often seen (by people who don't read fantasy?) as pure escapism from the 'real' world. In contrast to, say, social-reality fiction that reflects this world. What do you think?

    When some writers move beyond category distinctions between fantasy, sf and modernist fiction, as in different kinds of new-wave approaches, is this also a way to break out of, or disturb, escapist readings of this fiction?

    What is fantasy trying to escape? Is escapism a problem at all? What is the real world (to you)?

  • #2
    I’m going to chime in with the lame “it depends on the fantasy” response. I think some fantasy is pure escapism. Much of the “orphan finds out he must go I. A quest to prove himself and discovers he’s really royalty,” and “a rag-tag band of adventurers with nothing in common join together and discover a conspiracy/ artifact/ greet lurking evil that only they can manage”
    stuff is pure escapism. The real world is burning right now— who wouldn’t want to escape to a world where atonement and redemption are ordinary, heroes save the day, and right/ goodness triumphs.

    However, like the best SF is really about the here and now, the best fantasy (for my tastes) explores humanity. Much of Mike’s work is obviously more about this world than any of the fantasy worlds they are set in. M. John Harrison’s best fantasy work is actively confrontational with this world. Vandermeer’s latest work is almost frighteningly about humanity and it’s limits. And Gaiman knows more about people than just about anyone working. I could keep providing examples, but my point is I read those kind of works for a different kind of engagement with ideas that matter in my experience. They are anything but escapism, and in some cases are almost therapeutic. It’s also not lost on me that most of the work I like is only loosely categorized as fantasy. Much of it is shelved as new weird or urban fantasy or slipstream, or horror. I think the fantasy label to many people is limited to heroic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or sword and sorcery like Howard. But that’s a different thread altogether.

    thanks for starting this!

    Comment


    • #3
      Doc phrased it very well.

      I like escapism. Always have. But those sneaky theologians and philosophers and sociologists and humanists keep inserting their thoughts in there, and I find myself actually learning things. What the heck?!?! I wanted dragon-slaying.

      In all seriousness, I do like my escapism, but I enjoy deeper levels of reading. If I can get both, all the better. When I write, I like to write both. Escapism is delightful to write. A story with a powerful message is also important to write at times.

      i think the goals of the author matter, but the goals of the reader matter too. You could read the Elric stories as pure escapism, but Mike put more in there if you want it. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to divorce yourself from your context. You’ll see your context in what you read, even if the author didn’t mean it. Case in point, I found the Emperor of Saberhagen’s books of swords to seem very messianic. But I’m a pastor. Others might not take the figure that way. In fact, as he’s a jester-like figure with bastard kids everywhere, some might scoff at my associations. S’okay. He’s messianic to me. Literature should be subjective to an extent.
      "Self-discipline and self-knowledge are the key. An individual becomes a unique universe, able to move at will through all the scales of the multiverse - potentially able to control the immediate reality of every scale, every encountered environment."
      --Contessa Rose von Bek, Blood part 4, chapter 12

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      • #4
        Is pure escapism even possible? The author's experience of the world can't help but creep in to the work. And even if the author is blissfully unaware, it doesn't mean others won't notice.

        Comment


        • #5
          Thanks for your thougtful responses. I guess in asking I am trying to figure out my own fascination with fantasy fiction in the widest of definitions. I agree that the best fantasy can exist on many levels and be both escapist and about human existence, consciousness, life and death at the same time. In the end maybe it basically depends on how you read and what your expectations are (which I suppose is also the reason why you can re-read the same books again and again and still get something new out of them).

          But I have the impression that fantasy is often regarded (by the literary establishment) as less important, more escapist?, not only in comparison with modernist fiction but also in contrast to science fiction. Sf works like the novels of Gibson are automatically read as allegories of the present society. Whereas in fantasy the "second world" seems to be more closed around itself, free of the issues of mortgages and politics.

          I wonder if fantasy is deemed of less importance because we are losing touch with the world of dreams and the subconscious. In our modern societies it's hard to find any concern for the soul.

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          • #6
            One interesting fad that has come about in the past 30 years or so is what I would call Meta-Fantasy: self-aware escapist fantasy which addresses the traditional tropes, often by way of subverting them. There is perhaps no more famous model of this style than George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), although I think Martin takes the model a bit too far to the point where it looses all pleasure and heart. A better, and earlier example, is Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (Osten Ard) series--in fact, it Martin has admitted that it was Dragonbone Chair which inspired Game of Thones to begin with. Williams takes the classic “orphan finds out he must go [on] A quest to prove himself and discovers he’s really royalty,” (as Doc put it) and makes something new and useful of it in a beautifully drawn epic with nothing but heart.

            Addressing the OP, though, I would agree with the others here that it really depends on the Fantasy and even on the reader. D&D Novels are pretty much pure escapism and little more than wish fulfillment, although some do try address real problems such as racism and sexism. Of course, Science Fiction has a long tradition of relevance, but we are discussing Fantasy here. More modern fantasies--the so-called Urban Fantasies which take place in a Magical version of our own world--are perhaps better positioned to address modern human problems but they, by no means, hold the sole ownership of fantastical relevance.
            "In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro"
            --Thomas a Kempis

            Comment


            • #7
              Well said EverKing !
              "Self-discipline and self-knowledge are the key. An individual becomes a unique universe, able to move at will through all the scales of the multiverse - potentially able to control the immediate reality of every scale, every encountered environment."
              --Contessa Rose von Bek, Blood part 4, chapter 12

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Heresiologist View Post
                Is pure escapism even possible? The author's experience of the world can't help but creep in to the work. And even if the author is blissfully unaware, it doesn't mean others won't notice.
                This is a topic for a different thread, but I am interested in the idea of the author as text and the primacy of authorial authority. With respect to the escapism question, I wonder if we always read actively enough to engage all of that knowledge you mention as we read, or can we turn it off...🤔

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by EverKing View Post
                  One interesting fad that has come about in the past 30 years or so is what I would call Meta-Fantasy: self-aware escapist fantasy which addresses the traditional tropes, often by way of subverting them. There is perhaps no more famous model of this style than George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), although I think Martin takes the model a bit too far to the point where it looses all pleasure and heart. A better, and earlier example, is Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (Osten Ard) series--in fact, it Martin has admitted that it was Dragonbone Chair which inspired Game of Thones to begin with. Williams takes the classic “orphan finds out he must go [on] A quest to prove himself and discovers he’s really royalty,” (as Doc put it) and makes something new and useful of it in a beautifully drawn epic with nothing but heart.
                  .
                  Both Martin and Williams understand the fantasy tropes really well. Martin seems to actively resent them and writes the resentment (instead of simply subverting them and moving on, like Elric being the anti-Conan).

                  Williams had (has?) fresh ideas and respected the tropes and played with them. To my sensibilities, The Dragonbone Chair rode the line between familiar and unexpected pretty effectively. It was never a rehash of anything else (even though people have now stolen pretty liberally from it). That’s an effective use of a trope-use it as a starting point, rather than hand-waving shorthand.

                  Martin seems to be the kid who hate played with his toys that he often broke. It can be really compelling, but it often seems bleak for the sake of being bleak and unsettling to our sensibilities (about generic tropes and humanity).



                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by EverKing View Post
                    Addressing the OP, though, I would agree with the others here that it really depends on the Fantasy and even on the reader. D&D Novels are pretty much pure escapism and little more than wish fulfillment, although some do try address real problems such as racism and sexism. .
                    I had a friend who said that all the D&D novels existed for people who wanted to play but had either no imagination or no friends. A little harsh, but there’s a grain of something there, especially with respect to the novels that pretty much read like someone’s campaign notes...

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by J-Sun View Post

                      i think the goals of the author matter, but the goals of the reader matter too. You could read the Elric stories as pure escapism, but Mike put more in there if you want it. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to divorce yourself from your context. You’ll see your context in what you read, even if the author didn’t mean it. Case in point, I found the Emperor of Saberhagen’s books of swords to seem very messianic. But I’m a pastor. Others might not take the figure that way.
                      sorry to highjack the thread...
                      I meant to include this in my response to Herisiogost when I was musing about the author as text and authorial authority.

                      Mike has long told the story about how many people have misinterpreted Elric and acted on those interpretations to justify pretty reprehensible actions (not quite Clockwork Orange level stuff, but
                      not too far off). Similar odd responses to Pyat by people who actually thought he was a hero. Anyone who has spoken to Mike for 3 minutes knows that’s far far removed from who he is. Anyway, more frost for the mill.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Doc View Post
                        sorry to highjack the thread...
                        I meant to include this in my response to Herisiogost when I was musing about the author as text and authorial authority.

                        Mike has long told the story about how many people have misinterpreted Elric and acted on those interpretations to justify pretty reprehensible actions (not quite Clockwork Orange level stuff, but
                        not too far off). Similar odd responses to Pyat by people who actually thought he was a hero. Anyone who has spoken to Mike for 3 minutes knows that’s far far removed from who he is. Anyway, more frost for the mill.
                        [Continuing Hijack]
                        I thought it was just one person who used Elric as justification for something reprehensible? As for Pyat the Hero, MM should have a round-table with the creators of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, who have both wrestled with the same problem. To whit, there's always some droog who wants to take charge of the crucifixion (so to speak) and be the death of the author.
                        [End Hijack]

                        Anyway, I think this "somebody said fantasy is just escapism" business is really tired. And I think the days of Lit genre people looking down on the SFF genre are mostly in the past. Murakami won the World Fantasy Award. Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan have all said nice things about genre novels and, despite the marketing, written a few such novels. Their criticisms are mostly in line with those of MM and other SFF writers of similar mind.

                        As for escapism, didn't Tolkien say something about only jailers being against escapism. Then again (because it's not my intention to make things plain), what could a jailer want more than a prisoner who prefers escapism to escaping?

                        Maybe it all just breaks down to Sturgeon's Revelation, which I'll now paraphrase and update. Anybody who cherry picks the worst example of SFF to argue that it's just escapism, or bad, isn't worth bothering with. While it's true there's a lot of bad SFF, ninety percent of everything is crud. The best SFF is just plain good fiction.
                        Last edited by Heresiologist; 08-18-2020, 09:17 PM.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          G.R.R. Martin's own words on how he sees fantasy - a quote from his homepage (originally printed in 1996):

                          The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

                          Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

                          We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

                          They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Sir Sorcerer View Post
                            G.R.R. Martin's own words on how he sees fantasy ...
                            Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

                            We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
                            ...
                            Thanks for that Sir S, but, somehow, I don't think those thoughts were the founding principles of Martin's Game of Thrones books. Additionally, I have to wonder how fantasy works like Mieville's Un Lun Dun or Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter or even de Lint's Moonheart slot into Martin's broad binary between high flown fantasy realms and poor, shoddy, reality. All of those books manage to wring fantasy out of the drab, even awful, realities Martin claims are the antithesis of fantasy.

                            Circling back to my is pure escapism possible query, I note Martin refers to Oz. I read a lot of those books to my daughter when she was younger and both of us quite enjoyed them. Anybody who says they are just escapism isn't paying attention. For one thing, Baum was out to show girls and women in strong roles of leadership and otherwise defying the norms of the day.

                            A possibly darker failure to completely escape reality is seen via the marked and total absence, in the books, of Kansas' original inhabitants. A couple editorials Baum wrote while a journalist likely give some indication about that absence. More interestingly, his activist mother in law was strongly on the opposite side of the issue.

                            And Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, still found a completely different set of Oz story elements to interrogate.

                            Really, though, I have to ask what world is Martin living in? His "fantasy tastes" are all pretty much in my pantry.
                            Last edited by Heresiologist; 08-19-2020, 10:35 AM.

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                            • #15
                              1996, that's the year the first book in the series was published wasn't it? Anyway I haven't read any of them, so I am unqualified to say if his fantasy credo is fitting or not. The fact that it's on his website seems to indicate that he still believes in it, at least to some extent? I quoted the passage mainly as an illustration of what to my ears sounded surprisingly escapist. Totally agree with your reading of Oz by the way.

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