I spend a good portion of my day either reading books, writing books, listening to audiobooks, or watching TV shows and films. I occasionally ask myself if this is wasted time: time spent not living my own life. Should I be having more experiences out in the real physical world rather than in these imagined worlds in my head?
I was pondering this question again the other day, and rather than just dismissing it with my usual “of course it’s not wasted time, fiction is awesome! Escapism is awesome!” response, I thought I’d actually try to pinpoint what it is that makes me feel this way.
Story and Escapism
In your life on this earth, you are (usually) given one body, one gender, one race, one reality and one small slice of history in which to explore these things. If you are lucky, you are also given an imagination, and a community of people both living and dead, to provide you with the one thing that can cheat those boundaries: story.
Of course, no story can replace the real tangible experience of visiting a new place, of tasting great food, of spending time with loved ones, of feeling snow crunching under your boots or a fire warming your hands.
Yet each fictional ‘escape’ provides an experience that is beyond the scope of any one person’s life and reality.
Historical fiction offers you a glimpse into historical periods that, short of a time machine, you will never be able to visit.
Romantic fiction lets you fall in love in many more ways and with many more people than one lifetime or heart would allow.
Science fiction provides you with a window into possible futures, alternate realities, and life on other planets.
Fantasy fiction allows you to experience impossible realities with impossible rules.
Every genre offers some form of escape, some insight into another world or character or society or way of thinking.
A World Without Escapism
At its most basic level, escapism is the seeking of a distraction or relief from reality, either in imagined fantasies or in fiction. It has been particularly associated with the fantasy and romance genres; but could be applied to a story of any kind. Story is in its very nature escapist.
Every time someone tells a story, they are forcing the listener to imagine a reality different from their own. Of course the degree of difference varies (uncle Barry recounting his latest holiday is probably closer to your reality than a character in an invented fantasy world explaining the use of their magical powers), but there is always a difference.
So a world entirely without escapism, a world without story, would be a place where no one could imagine a reality and life different from their own.
Granted, that’s an extreme, but picturing such an extreme helps me to understand why I so value escapism. A world without it would be boring, devoid of empathy, and lacking hope.
Rejecting the Real World
Escapism is not necessarily a rejection of the real world. It does not immediately suggest an inability to cope with, or a dissatisfaction with, reality. It merely suggests a temporary departure – an escape – from that reality.
I enjoy the occasional ‘escape’, yet I would never wish to trade my life (which has been, up to this point, a very enjoyable one) for the difficult, conflict-fraught existences of the characters in the books I read. I simply enjoy the glimpses they provide me of experiences I will never have, worlds I will never see, and lives I will never lead.
While I don’t think it would be healthy or fulfilling to spend an entire waking life absorbed in fiction, I don’t believe a reasonable portion of time spent doing this is wasted time.
Escapism is part of the reason I read so many books, but is also at the core of why I write.
Each time I read a brilliant book – one that entertains me and opens up new worlds and characters and ideas – I feel so grateful to the author for gifting me with this unique experience from their imagination. When I think of my favourite novels, I feel each of those ‘escapes’ has enriched my life in some small but memorable way. They have not made me lament reality and life. They have, if anything, made me appreciate being alive and human even more.
I remember when I was first wrestling with the daunting idea of writing a book, I thought: if I could write a story that would give even one other person an escape as fascinating and spell-binding as those I’ve been given, then it would be worth it.
So I guess through both my writing and my reading, I’ll continue to spend my life escaping and returning. I’ll fill it with not only my own experiences and imaginings, but glimpses into thousands of others. I’ll use story to stretch, if only a little, the boundaries of space and time and physics and gender that border my existence. And I think, in the end, my life will have been the richer for it.