On the subject of reading as escapism, Tolkien asked C.S. Lewis who was opposed to escape, and answered “Jailers.” Yet seventy-five years after the publication of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” where he relates this anecdote, people are still trying to make us feel guilty about our reading.
“What are your guilty reading pleasures?” “Why do you read escapist books?” “Is there any merit to that?” “Is there something wrong with you that you’re reading for enjoyment instead of taking your literary vitamins?”
I love reading. If I say this, people generally look at me with approval. Reading is a culturally approved practice, it improves my mind and widens my cultural capital. But if I admit what I read — more fiction than non fiction, more genre books than classics, fantasy, science fiction, romance, military fiction, historical fiction, mysteries and YA — then I lose that approval and have to start justifying my choices. I also read a lot of Victorian fiction and biographies and random interesting non-fiction and some things published as literature… and I don’t hold any of them as better than any of the others. To me they’re all what I’m reading because I want to read it, because reading it is the most fun I can have in any given moment.
I don’t feel defensive about what I choose to read. I don’t feel proud of some pieces and ashamed of other pieces. It’s all reading, and I do it all for fun. I don’t do it to escape, I’m not in prison. I like my life. But when I was in prison, excuse me, boarding school, and when I was stuck in hospital (which is even more like prison except without time off for good behaviour) of course I wanted to escape and of course I was delighted that books were there for me to escape into. If your life sucks, escaping it makes a great deal of sense. If your life is bounded and restricted, seeing that more options exist helps, even if they’re all theoretical and imaginary. Escaping doesn’t mean avoiding reality, escaping means finding an escape route to a better place. Seeing those options can be the file to get through the bars. Anyone who thinks this is a bad thing is the enemy.
I have never made the career choice of being a dragon’s princess. I have never started a revolution on the moon. I’ve never so much as stolen a magic ring or ordered an attack on Guadalcanal. I bet you haven’t either. But we imaginatively know what it would be like because we’ve read about it and cared about the characters and thrown ourselves into the story. There are worlds I’d hate to live in, books that make me feel delighted that I’m not living in them, dystopias and books where awful things happened to the characters. I still enjoyed them, and I might still have escaped into them. I might have come back to my reality of boarding school and said, “Well, at least it’s not Airstrip One!”
There’s a way in which fiction is about understanding human nature. It’s about more than that, of course, but that’s a significant part of it. I feel that you can tell more interesting stories about human nature if you can contrast it with alien nature, or elf nature, or what human nature would be like if you had nine thousand identical clones, or if people could extend their lives by sucking life force from other people. There are more possibilities for stories in genre, more places for stories to go. More ways to escape, more things to think about, more fun.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, a book I first read as a small child, some characters are in an underground kingdom where an evil enchantress attempts to persuade them that the sun and the worlds they came from aren’t real, and only the underground world is real. One of them argues passionately that even if the sun isn’t real, he’ll believe in it because even an imaginary sun is better than a lamp. Now this character, Puddleglum, is not only made up, but he’s not even human, he’s an imaginary creature, a marshwiggle. But remembering Puddleglum’s declaration has helped me get through some hard moments all my life, has helped me believe in fiction even when it’s not real, has given me an example of how you can stand up for what matters even when it might not be real. Lewis meant it for an allegory of religion, but I didn’t know that when I was six years old and it isn’t at all how I read it. People get their own things out of stories. If you give them books and turn them loose they’ll escape, and grow up, and do all sorts of things.
Did I mention that I love reading?
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.