There’s been a bit of chatter lately in Romancelandia about escapism. I’m thinking especially of Ruthie Knox’s Wonkomance post, On Escapism in Historical Romance, where she wonders if escapism is necessary to romance, and Cecilia Grant’s guest post on Anna Cowan’s blog, And Still, We Will Fall In Love, where she acknowledges – and then points a middle finger at – the notion that escapism is incompatible with literary merit.
I also had a Twitter conversation about why readers would want to escape into horrific scenarios of abusive relationships. Sarah Mayberry tweeted that the “rich guy will make me happy” plot troubled her – that she wants her “heroines to be in charge of their own happiness and have their own power, not find it thr[ough] the man.”
And I thought – yes, that is a kind of escapism, but it’s a different kind of escapism than Ruthie Knox was talking about, and different again from what Cecilia Grant was talking about. It occurred to me that escapism is an umbrella term, a genus with many species, and that if we want to have a productive conversation about escapism, we should probably spend some time thinking about what it is.
So I’m going to start by listing different kinds of escapism. Not a complete list, but the best I can do:
Escape into a Better World: A world where the good guy always wins. Where the romance always ends in a happily ever after. Where the mystery is always solved, the villains get their comeuppance, and order is affirmed and restored.
I think this is the kind of escapism that Ruthie Knox was talking about when she wrote, “I want some anxiety, but not too much. Some tears, but not too many. Some gritty reality in the portrayal of history, but not so much reality that I get all swept up in thinking miserable thoughts about the past.”
In this better world of fiction, we expect loss and upheaval and anguish — but not too much. (Though, of course, various writers and readers define ‘too much’ very differently).
Escape into a World that Can and Should Be: This is what Sarah Mayberry made me think of. This escapism is like a model home, or an artists rendering of a community development. “This is what we can do,” it says. “Here’s how I propose to deal with this potential problem, and that one.” In romance, I think this means subjecting a couple to potentially relationship-shattering difficulties that occur frequently in real life (incompatible career goals, juggling work and family, difficult family dynamics) and modeling a successful resolution.
This also means things like forward-thinking gender dynamics, strong mutual respect within a couple, fair division of household labor, etc. And the solutions might be good, but they’re rarely easy — compromises are key to a happy resolution.
Escape Into A Better World vs. Escape into a World that Can and Should Be
Escaping into a better world is impossible, because we’ll never live in a world where good guys always win and mysteries are always solved. We will never have a reality where we can count on a satisfactory outcome to our greatest difficulties.
Escaping into a world that can and should be is possible, because it only asks individuals (real, fictional) to call upon their best selves and make good choices in a generally screwed-up world. This escapism says, in fun and funny and heartwarming ways: Best practices lead to better outcomes. Some people are good: find them. And hold on when you do.
Escape from Burdens: I think this is the kind of escapism most often used to tar and feather romance, as a genre. This is the billionaire who sweeps an ordinary heroine off her feet. The bodyguard who steps in to battle the heroine’s demons. The cowboy who knows just how to save the heroine’s failing ranch, the playboy who discovers he wants nothing more than to be a loving, devoted father.
These are books that say: Are you terrified of financial hardship, tormented by envy, psychically drained, exhausted? Here, let yourself be carried away by a story where those burdens that you carry, that make every day painful, vanish.
These are not true stories. They are probably exactly as impossible as they are necessary to their readers.
Escape from burdens might be the most useful kind of escapism, because it has an immediate practical application. This is escapism as respite — as Cecilia Grant wrote, “a kind of turning-away, or temporary retreat, from conditions and realities that are too painful to steadily face.” Escapism as a pause, a breather, a break. Time to gear up for the next round. Or, alternatively, an acknowledgement of defeat. A hidey-hole, a walled fortress, a defense mechanism.
Some burdens cannot be escaped. Life is painful, for everyone, pretty often. I have a lot of empathy for the escape from burdens because I think it zeroes in on those grinding, debilitating worries that won’t go away, that can only be endured. Grant, typically, said this more elegantly: ”I find it more interesting, more rewarding, to think of romance as an unbowed answer to those conditions and realities. A confrontation. A tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.”
Escape from Consequences: If escape from burdens is an escape from conditions that often feel beyond one’s control, escape from consequences is an escape from personal responsibility. Escape from punishment, escape from rejection, escape from ostracism.
The protagonists of these stories knowingly make unethical decisions but avoid the backlash that they often desperately fear. They cheat and still get a happily ever after. They steal and get to keep the loot. They betray those that they love and are forgiven, without having to do any meaningful penance. These characters may behave irresponsibly and still come out on top, without having to modify their bad habits, or expose themselves to terrible risk but emerge unscathed.
Escape from Consequences vs. Escape from Burdens
If the escape from burdens makes people roll their eyes, the escape from consequences tends to make people angry. I probably don’t need to explain why. If these stories were intended as lessons, or parables of self-help, they would fail spectacularly.
I can’t say that the escape from consequences is my favorite flavor of escapism, and I think it’s problematic from a purely technical standpoint – how do you write good novel without consequences? There’s a reason why one of the first pieces of jargon any romance writer adds to her lexicon is ‘black moment’ – but as a fantasy, I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Most people make a couple really bad choices in a lifetime. And there are few realities more painful or humiliating than facing up to those mistakes and moving on.
Escape Into Pure Fantasy: Sometimes we escape just for fun. To delight the imagination. It’s the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter, the rivers of chocolate in Willy Wonka, the migrating bicycles in Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
In romance, it’s the magical night out. Dancing at the ball in the perfect dress. Sex that always feels great and orgasms that are never a struggle or a duty.
Oh – and abs. Lots and lots of abs.
Escape into a Heightened Reality: This one ought to be broken down into parts, but there are too many parts. I associate this sort of escape, first and foremost, with science fiction and fantasy. And that means that plenty of real and virtual ink has been spilled on the subject, plumbing depths and offering expertise that I don’t have.
A heightened reality can be very much like our own, or it can play by its own rules — dragons, spaceships, etc. — allowing characters to do things like interact directly with metaphor (magic as power, for example), or ideas (political beliefs modeled into fantasy empires and pitted against one another). It can be complex (think George R.R. Martin) or very simple (good vs. evil, with clear markers of each and no gray areas).
But for the purposes of romance, I think the relevant sub-category is: escape into a world of extremes. I think it’s very easy to mistake extreme emotions for more important emotions, truer emotions, somehow superior emotions. More is better. Drama is interesting. Spectacle is value.
We see novels whose protagonists embody romantic virtues in extreme, unhealthy ways, virtues that metastasize into a disease. Devotion that is obsessive, baseless, stalkerish. Unconditional love that is proven and proven again when protagonists forgive the unforgivable.
Obviously I’m ambivalent about the escape into a world of extremes. Likely I just haven’t figured out how to process it.
I think the more that we parse escapism, the better we will understand romance as a genre.
The only escapism that romance must offer us is the escape into a better world — the guarantee of a satisfactory resolution to the primary romantic plotline. Subsidiary plotlines are exempt from this requirement & I think one of the possibilities of the genre is that it can offer readers a happily ever after while confounding other expectations. Love can disrupt order rather than restore it, for example.
Escapisms can be mixed and matched. They can appear singly or in concert. We already know this. Our protagonists can be flawed. They might make poor choices. They might face awful consequences for those choices. Happiness doesn’t have to mean relief from burdensome circumstances.
Precision is power.
I like thinking about why, too. Why write an escape, why indulge in an escape. Is there a difference between an escape from burdens that’s unreflective – The handsome duke is marrying me! I will live in a palace and wear fancy dresses and have fantastic sex all the time and never work again! – and an escape from burdens that’s crafted explicitly as “a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair”? I suspect the answer is yes.
Every escapism can be raised to that level of worthiness. They shouldn’t have to be – but the possibility is exciting.