February 28, 2013

Escaping through Fiction

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Literary pundits and theoreticians posit a bevy of lofty ideals toward which all good literature should aspire. For example, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Emerson is perhaps trying to say that fiction is a way for people to access knowledge outside of their daily experiences. Except it isn’t the kind you’d learn in textbooks, but rather knowledge of the more visceral, emotional, wishy-washy quality, otherwise known as wisdom. Other notables go further. The noted playwright Bertolt Brecht, of Mother Courage fame, ventured that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. That is to say, literature is not isolated from the social and cultural framework in which it is set, but takes an active part in constructing it. Literature has a socializing, acculturating function. It can topple regimes and spark changes in ways of thinking that reverberate down generations. However, readers are perhaps most often drawn to literature out of an intense desire to escape — usually, through escapist fiction.  Rather than observing reality or changing it, escapist fiction instead posits an alternate reality rooted in its own rules. Escapist fiction is sometimes said to be disdained by the reactionaries and aristocrats of the literary world. The common stereotype involves a middle-aged snob sitting in his armchair next to a fireplace, glass of scotch in hand, sneering at a pristine copy of The Sword of Shannara open across his lap, lamenting the ‘death of literary fiction’. Despite this highly exaggerated image, though, escapist fiction has become an inextricable part of our cultural fabric; those who look down upon it are fighting a losing battle. Nevertheless, there still exists that implicit consensus that escapist fiction is somehow on a lower pedestal than non-escapist fiction, that because it depicts a world we’d rather live in it is automatically inferior, aimed to pacify the common man as he slaves away in his gilded hamster cage, fashioning baubles for the shadowy plutocrats that loom above the puppet stage. Science fiction adventure stories do not usually win Oscars, or Man Booker Prizes. Instead, escapist literature is relegated to the realm of children or young adults.   Simply put, escapist literature is everywhere, but by virtue of its ubiquity it is not granted the recognition it deserves.What level of recognition does it deserve, you ask? I think that escapism is probably the most important literary development in recent times. It is properly not an end unto itself, it is a mode, a hook, a literary device to draw readers in. Literary fiction has always seemed unapproachable because it often deals with heavy topics: the human condition, war, slavery, inequality, the like – all within the confines of mundane existence; a mirror unto the imperfections of our own reality. Many people don’t like that. Escapism replaces that reality with one in which we actually want to live in, and thus makes literature accessible. Escapism is not incompatible with literature-as-mirror or literature-as-agent-of-change. In fact, far from being the great enemy of traditional affective literature, it may be its greatest emerging ally, combating the evil forces of reality TV, celebrity gossip and the always-on camera recording the lives of the Kardashians. That is because escapist fiction can, at its best, act as a cradle for good stories and good literature. If the thought of escaping to a world where you can ride broomsticks and cast spells introduces kids to the wonders of reading and good storytelling (and a life of literacy afterward), more power to escapism.But escapism doesn’t just rely on its status as a hook to justify its importance to the future of literature. The experience of escapism, itself, opens up the gates to an entirely new way of experiencing the fictive realm. It signifies a change in paradigm: Fiction is no longer merely a convenient tool with which to size up the world, it is a desirable destination from which the world may be sized up. The best escapist literature consists of fully formed worlds of wonder and terror, where setting, backstory and ambience are paramount, rather than merely being mis-en-scene for the narrative. These places are sandboxes of the imagination, within which authors and readers alike participate in the exercise of imagining creative new ways of living. Science fiction sandbox worlds  like Star Trek are visions of the possible future; others, like Warhammer 40k, are portents of what could go wrong. As places in which creativity is inspired, and both author and reader become active participants in their construction, these escapist realms are the future of storytelling and literature. And what better medium to carry the new era than video games? Right now, video games have not quite ascended the artistic hierarchy from crass entertainment to art form. But, with technological improvements, the virtual worlds of video games might become conduits or vessels through which people can experience the kinds of stories that excite interest in the human condition, within the confines of a vast, rich and detailed world in which the setting is its own attraction. Games like Fallout, Bioshock and The Witcher are already steps in the right direction. So I say, rejoice, gamers, at the coming apotheosis of your burgeoning craft.

Original Author: Colin Chan