Ways of Escaping
What we mean when we talk about escapism in fiction - and why no one ever fully escapes.
A reader asked me to share my thoughts about "escapism" - the idea that we use fiction to escape or avoid the problems of real life. Escapism can be thought of as a good thing, a bad thing, or various things in between. But my main thought about escapism is that it consists of more than one thing. Each one can be good and healthy, though I suppose it isn't necessarily always so; and many of them are not only about escaping something.
Here are some different ways that people can use fiction to escape.
When we are overwhelmed, we might use fiction to distract ourselves and calm down. Anybody can do this, but of course autistic people are more prone to being overwhelmed than others. We can also be sensory seekers, so we might use fiction in the opposite way, to escape from feelings of understimulation.
There are at least four different ways to use fiction to self-regulate.
Comfort from a pleasant story. If we feel like things are bad we might read a soothing story in which things are not so bad and people are treated well. This might be especially appealing for those who are easily triggered or overwhelmed by fictional events.
Comfort from a predictable story. It's very soothing for most autistic people to know what is going to happen next! We might re-read a story that we already read and liked and be soothed by the familiar beats of the plot.
Comfort from a special interest. Reading about a special interest can be soothing, cheering, and invigorating, regardless of whether the story is "pleasant" or "unpleasant" in the usual sense. Some autistic people have a special interest in a particular fictional book, series, or genre.
Comfort from an intense or cathartic story. This is counter-intuitive but actually very common. If we are feeling something intense we might want to escape into a story that is equally intense so that it can safely distract us. An intense story might give us a "good cry" or another form of emotional release which is harder to get when we focus directly on reality.
All of these are ways of escaping reality, but they serve a clear purpose. We are not simply denying reality. Instead, we are self-regulating by focusing on something fictional, usually with the goal of calming ourselves down so that we can face reality again soon. Exactly what we escape into is not the important part - the important part is that the escape serves an immediate purpose that helps our real selves to manage our circumstances.
Many people like fiction that escapes the world's problems. For example, if someone is queer in real life, they might prefer to read a story where there is no queerphobia or transphobia. Everybody in the story just goes about their lives, having queer relationships, without encountering any prejudice or structural barriers.
This is not the only preference a queer person might have, and it is not the only useful way of writing queer characters, but it is one useful way to write. It is not only useful because it's comforting. It also helps us to envision what the world would look like if prejudice did not exist. What kinds of relationships do the characters have in this fictional world? How are their lives different from ours? When we go back to the real world and fight against its problems, this kind of fiction can help us keep in mind what we are fighting for.
There is also a form of escapism that's the opposite of this. Some people might like to escape into a fictional world that has a lot of problems, but different ones from real life. If comforting stories about happy people do not feel intense enough to be a good escape - or if seemingly comforting stories, on some level, do not feel safe - then this may be a good alternative.
Both of these ways of making a fictional world are in some sense about denying reality. But both of them subtly make room to explore ideas and feelings that could be harnessed in a useful way in reality.
And there is also room for escape in a work of fiction that deals with more realistic problems in a more nuanced way.
Solving a Problem Sideways
When we directly address a real-world problem in fiction, there is a reason why it's useful to do this in fiction - as opposed to an autobiography or an instruction manual. And the reason why it's useful it's precisely because fiction is not real. The distance between fiction and reality, whether it's large or small, is an escape of sorts that allows for freer movement, easier exploration, and more grace when confronting difficult feelings.
I've written about this before in my essay on fiction and coping with trauma. But I think that most of the same mechanisms apply to addressing any difficult problem in fiction, regardless of whether the problem is connected to any personal trauma for the writer or reader. Fiction gives us a little more distance and freedom to explore all aspects of the problem. What does the problem feel like? What are its effects? What might happen if it was dealt with one way, or another way? How might different people feel about it and react to it? How might different people react to different things that could be done about it?
The problem might be heavily fictionalized, made into a surreal magical construct, dealt with through metaphor and suggestion and subtext. Or a story might deal with exactly the same problem that the reader or author has - except that it happens, not to them, but to a fictional person. Either way, the connection between the problem and the real world is a degree of relevance and meaning. The distance between the problem and the real world is a degree of freedom.
You can't fully collapse the distance between the problem and the real world, because if you did, what you wrote would not be fiction. But you also can't fully sever the connection. Even in a completely wild, fanciful story, there must be some slight resemblance between an issue the characters face and an issue people face in reality - otherwise the story would be incomprehensible, including to the author. You can't actually get out of the world where everything is, at some level, about people, and where everything is true.
Fun and Relaxation
Of course, when many people talk about wanting to escape into a story, they are not about their relationship with a particular problem. Instead, they are saying that reading a story is fun! Different kinds of story are fun for different people - hopeful or gloomy, realistic or fanciful, breezy or deep. But most people who read books don't only do it to self-regulate or process something. They do it because it's fun!
Having things to do for fun, and ways to relax between tasks, is a real human need. We all need it, whether we are readers or not. And it is entirely reasonable that, when our goal is to relax and have fun, we might not want to think too hard about real world problems. We might just want to read something that pleases us with its appealing characters, or exciting plot, or deft use of language and imagery. There's nothing wrong with this.
However, I think that what I said above is still true. Whether we are consciously focused on it or not, there is always some connection or parallel between a story and reality, some element of processing or self-regulation. It may not be the only element of reading but it is there. Play, for most animals, is a way of joyfully practicing skills that will be needed later, and humans are no different.
It can be good and healthy to escape from reality for a while; but the escape is never complete, because we are always still dealing with reality deep down. Both of these things are true - in part because of each other. Both of them, I think, are good things.