JANE: A while back I listened to an audiobook of A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of Terry Pratchett’s speeches and articles from over the years. I was very taken with a theme he kept returning to… His defense of “escapist” fiction.
As I recall, he pointed out that only prisoners need to escape, and that one “escapes to,” as much as escaping “from.”
ALAN: I have a print copy right here. Let’s see exactly what he said.
In an early essay Pterry remarked:
“But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.”
Later on, when talking about his own omnivorous reading, he said:
“But you can escape to as well as from. In my case, the escape was a truly Tolkien experience, as recorded in his Tree and Leaf. I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”
JANE: That’s it! This really stuck with me, especially since I found myself thinking how my so-called “escapist” reading habits gave me a lot to dream about, and those dreams became foundations for the reality in which I now live.
ALAN: I’ve never understood the implied sneer that lies behind the word escapism. The literati use it a lot when talking about SF and Fantasy (and to a lesser extent when talking about other genres). But it’s always seemed to me that the “mainstream” literature that they praise is equally as escapist in its own way.
Realism is time bound. The social mores, the workhouses and the debtors’ prisons that Dickens talks about are just as weird, bizarre and “non-realistic” to the twenty-first century reader as are the social and political institutions in the Martian colonies that Kim Stanley Robinson has written about. And one day (though probably not in my lifetime) these too will seem as oddly quaint to their readers as Dickens seems to us now.
JANE: That’s so very true. I love Elizabeth Enright’s works. When she was writing her stories such as The Saturdays (1940) and The Four Story Mistake (1941), things like WWII rationing were current history. By the time I read her works, probably sometime in the mid-1970’s, this well was outside of my personal experience. When I gave some of Enright’s works to my niece, when she was about ten (so maybe 2011), the gap was even larger.
“Reality” is a very tenuous concept.
ALAN: The fluidity of that idea puts me very much on Pterry’s side here. The escapism of my favourite reading matter speaks volumes about the reality of my life – not in the sense of accurate prediction (SF has never been in the prediction business, except in the most general way), but more in the sense of a recognition that things change, and that new ideas are important. It is something we really need to learn to embrace.
So because I kept escaping into books, I knew (to give just one example) that computers had the potential to revolutionise the way the world worked long before many of my contemporaries even knew what a computer was!
As usual, Shakespeare got it right:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on
Or, as Thomas M. Disch would have it in the title of a book of critical essays he wrote about SF, science fiction embodies The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of.
If you can’t dream, what’s the point of anything? Without escapism, we’d still be back in the caves hiding from the mammoths.
JANE: While I absolutely agree with your points, I’ll admit, Pratchett’s comment hit me on a different level. When he said, “But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.” I found myself remembering how the shy child I was used reading to almost literally escape to other places.
I read widely and variously, so those places might have been being an otter (The Otter Twins by Jane Tompkins) or a deer (Bambi and Bambi’s Children by Felix Salten). It might have been being a boy in the American West, taming wild horses and living with Indians. It might have been being Mowgli in the jungles of India.
Or it might have been as ostensibly mundane as being an American child in the 1940’s, as in Elizabeth Enright’s works.
But the thing about all these escapes was that I did come back “better.” If the otter twins could go down mudslides, then I could go off the high dive. The woods near where I grew up weren’t scary dark places; they were like where my fictional friends lived and therefore inviting. Real horses were awfully big, but I knew from books that I should hold my hand flat when I fed one a treat.
Eh, but I’d better slow down and give you a chance to get a word in.
ALAN: I know just what you mean. I grew up in the industrial north of England. The dark satanic mills that you may have read about were an everyday normality to me. But in my head I would travel to remote Pacific islands with R. M. Ballantyne, to the dead sea bottoms of Mars with Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to the Australian outback with an author whose name escapes me now, but whose books had an Aboriginal narrator who liked to grease his spears with the kidney fat of his dead enemies (a shuddersome image that gave me nightmares, and which has never left me). Many years later, I visited two of those places in real life and they seemed oddly familiar. I’m still hoping to see Barsoom one day…
JANE: That would be very cool… Maybe you and Robin, Jim and I, could make the trip together.
ALAN: That would be nice.
Pterry records that he was an omnivorous reader: “I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”
This resonated very strongly with me. Once I learned to read, I practically lived in the library. I read without rhyme or reason. I made no distinction between children’s books and books for adults, between fiction and non-fiction. If it had print on its pages, I read it happily. I never felt that I was escaping from (or to) anything. I was just learning about the world. I still have a problem with the idea that diving into a book is somehow less real (and less worthy) than playing a game of soccer or mowing the lawn.
JANE: Yep! That was me, definitely. Although my adult self recognizes that there was a degree of escape involved, the child me was gobbling up details of a world (or worlds) more diverse and interesting than that shown in the classroom.
Sometimes, as with my fondness for wolves, kind adults would try to tell me that the stories had it all wrong – that if I ever met a real wolf I wouldn’t like it at all. Funny thing about that… When I did finally meet a wolf, I loved it. And (back to books) modern research about wolves shows that their dynamic is a lot closer to Kipling’s version than to the “monsters” of the European fairy stories that seemed to be the root of most of the fear.
So ostensible fantasy and “escaping” took me to the reality in which I now live. Pretty fine, if you ask me.
ALAN: That’s escapism for you. You dig a tunnel under the wire and you come up in your living room every time.
JANE: I’d love to hear from our readers where they escaped “to” and if (and how) that escape shaped who they are today.