J.F. Riordan: In Defense of Escapist Books

Escapism is a dismissive term, usually meant to describe a book that someone thinks is too happy. People tend to denigrate escapist books as if they are a sign of moral failing.  They feel discomfort with happiness, as if it’s not part of real life and therefore can’t be a part of real literature or real art. When you ask people what they are reading, if it’s not Dostoevsky, they tend be apologetic. “Oh, nothing really,” they’ll say. “Just a little escapist thing. You know, for fun.”

Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I can get depressed all by myself, and if I want stressful situations I can pick up a newspaper.

No. My recreational reading is for pleasure, and for comfort, and for the delight of spending time with familiar characters who feel like old friends. And for me pleasure means escaping the stresses—large and small of my life.

Escapist books are exactly my cup of tea. In fact, my husband will tell you that I like to read books in which drinking tea is the primary activity. That isn’t strictly true, but he finds it amusing. Actually, there’s really more scotch drinking than tea drinking in my books, but perhaps the principle is the same.

I suppose you can argue that all literature is escapist, since it is about someone else’s life and troubles. But when people talk about escapism, they usually mean that the book is too happy. And they tend to denigrate happiness in books as if it were some sign of moral failing. At awards events like the Oscars it is rarely the case that a comedy will win out over a tragedy. People seem to feel some kind of discomfort with happiness as if it’s not part of real life and therefore can’t be a part of real literature or real art.

I think escapism and humor are valuable forms of literature. They provide comfort and restoration of the soul so that you can go back to the jungle the next day and fight on, renewed, refreshed, and reminded that life isn’t just a grind of obligation and drudgery.

—Or, if it is, that at least you can laugh about it.

So I write the kinds of books I like to read. They are escapes from the stress of everyday life, but not, I hope, an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Readers can hang out with characters whose lives are fundamentally decent and rich, but also filled with unintentional comedy. And that, it seems to me, is pretty close to reality.