Fantasy As Escapism: Avoiding Boredom or Uncertainty?
In my last Fantasy-Faction article, I quoted a recent article in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal in which he denigrated genre fiction, suggesting that readers rely on it as a form of escapism to avoid their otherwise “humdrum” lives. Apparently, Mr. Krystal believes that fans need tales of wizards and elves to spice up our otherwise boring cubicle-bound lives.
I agree with Mr. Krystal, but I think he is right for the wrong reasons. I think genre fiction, and fantasy in particular, can be a useful form of escapism. But I think it is not as a response to a boring life, but to a chaotic one.
Beach Reads or Something Better?
The type of escapism Mr. Krystal references brings to mind images of beach reads: mindless fluff that flits in and out of our minds, leaving hardly any trace. And while it is possible for fantasy to take on some aspects of fluff, I would argue that the best fantasy novels do not. I would even go so far as to say that many works of fantasy require a level of reading and concentration that goes far beyond the level required to read fluff.
After all, many airport bookstore bestselling series allow readers to start reading at any point, but many fantasy series require us to have read all of the previous volumes. Fans of fantasy read series that are three, five, seven, or even fourteen books long. Some fantasy fans re-read every book in a series when a new volume comes out. We pour over detailed maps, histories, glossaries, and appendices. And we post in forums like this one, discussing and dissecting minute details.
This is not the behavior of someone looking for fluff. So why do we do it? I do not think fantasy readers simply accept these things as a by-product of plot-heavy stories. And I do not think these things are the “cost” of being a fantasy fan. Instead, I think, perhaps subconsciously, fantasy fans put forth this extra effort for other reasons.
A Shared Sense of Control Among Fans
My theory is that this behavior is about control, not avoidance. With only a small investment of time and money, an eager reader can become an expert in that fictional world, because for any given fantasy series, there is only a finite amount of information for a reader to take in. By mastering the details of those fictional worlds, fans can experience a sense of certainty, comfort, confidence, and power that is often absent to some degree in our daily lives.
For most of us, expertise is difficult and expensive to obtain. Moreover, even if you reach expert status, the real world is still full of accidents and chance. This combination can create a sense of uncertainty and powerlessness. Therefore, it can be pleasant to instead have some degree of certainty and power, even if it is only over a fictional world.
Of course, that is not to say that a reader will not be surprised by fantasy novels (I am sure fans of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga are nodding) or that finite information cannot be used to spawn seemingly infinite theories (again, just look at the posts by ASOIAF fans on Westeros.org or on the Fantasy-Faction Forum).
But this theorizing and online communication offers another form of comfort and power: a shared, communal experience and a chance to demonstrate expertise. Many of us are isolated in the modern world. Communicating with others who have also read the same books creates a bonding experience that helps to alleviate the stresses of an otherwise cold and fickle world.
Lastly, I do not think it is a coincidence that many fantasy protagonists have special abilities, be they physical, magical, or otherwise. These skills give the characters power over their world—a power readers do not have, but one that they can empathize with. Therefore, readers can find a sense of control not only in the story itself, but also a sense of control over the details of the story as a whole.
I should be clear that I did not invent this theory entirely on my own. I first came across a more generalized version of it in podcaster/TV host/comedian Chris Hardwick’s book The Nerdist Way. Hardwick writes that nerds tend to “[hone] in on a topic to an almost quantum detail,” because it can create “a tremendous and fulfilling sense of control.” Hardwick writes that the more chaos and uncertainty a nerd faces in his or her daily life, the more he or she will retreat into these areas of expertise.
First, I am not calling you a nerd just because you like fantasy. I am a nerd, and I like fantasy, but it is correlation, not causation. Second, I am not implying that you can’t handle the pressures of the real world, so you retreat into fantasy. I am just trying to examine why we get pleasure from obsessing over fantasy series.
With all that said, I would hope critics like Mr. Krystal reconsider their opinions about genre fiction, and fantasy in particular. Yes, fantasy can help readers escape their daily lives. But many of us are not trying to spice up our otherwise vanilla lives. Fantasy is not always well suited for readers looking for light, fluffy entertainment that they can skim and quickly forget. Instead, it is best suited for readers who derive pleasure from plunging deeply into the material, learning it, interpreting it, and mastering it. It’s hard work, but it is also a pleasure that keeps us coming back for more.