Why Critique Why People Read? What’s Wrong with Escapism?

Why we read is a big part of determining what we read. If you read to escape your everyday life, then you probably don’t want to read something that reminds you of that life. You want to read something different. If your life is dull, you want excitement. If it’s frightening and stressful, you want fun and light-hearted. You want to imagine having what you don’t have and being what you’re not.

Like magic.

Since “fantasy” means 1. a fanciful mental image that someone thinks of repeatedly or 2. an idea with no basis in reality, it makes sense that the fantasy genre and escapism often go hand in hand.

I can’t think of a person I know who likes the Harry Potter series who wouldn’t love to get a letter from Hogwarts, pick out a wand, and fly on a broom. Even after the series got darker, the appeal of having that power was still strong. Having magic, showing courage, finding riches, being the “chosen one” who can save the world: these are fantasies that we get to enjoy as we read.

Yet people disdain escapism. For years, authors have faced literary critics who nitpick at the escapist nature of the books – with famous results.

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
— J.R.R. Tolkien

That seems pretty hard to argue with, yet literary critics continue to try. This baffles me since most popular fiction tends to be escapist – it’s read for pleasure, not to experience some high literary standard.

Maybe, that’s the real issue, and this attitude is mere literary pretension hiding behind higher ideals. It makes me wonder what critics read… and why.

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