“Classic” Post: Aug 2003–Escapist Fantasy and POMO Technique

Looking back on this post, there’s a certain element of chasing one’s tail here, but I think it’s still valuable in terms of challenging lazy assertions about postmodernism and also “escapism”.

There has been a certain amount of debate about escapist versus non-escapist fantasy that I think would be better discussed in the context of escapist versus non-escapist fiction.

First, though, I think it’s important to reaffirm a very basic concept: All fiction is fantasy, on one level. No matter how “realistic” the fiction, it contains some element either in a different context than it occurs in the real world or an element of the imagination brought in by the writer that has only a loose association with reality. To me, this seems like a rather safe and in some ways banal assumption.

In addition, however, I believe all fiction is fantasy because in one way or another fiction disappoints reality. No fiction can adequately describe even the interior of, say, a bookstore in such a way as to render it as real, on the level of specific detail, as you do when you visit said bookstore.

To some extent, then, all fiction is escapist, regardless of how grimly real. And in this sense, “escapist” means “untrue.” Thus, fiction can either be more or less escapist–it cannot be other than escapist, because it is, on the face of it, false to reality in some way, no matter how minor or major that way might be…(My own fiction often deals with the failure or the success of the imagination to transcend reality, or to transform reality, which fits into this discussion in a way that requires its own mini-essay in future.)

If you accept my argument above, then postmodern technique, by insisting that the reader face the reality that all fiction is fantasy (suspension of disbelief overruled), is in a sense less escapist than purely modernist fiction. By the same measure, postmodern fiction containing a “fantasy” element (for fantasy element, read: an event or person that could not exist in the “real” world in any sense) or fantasy containing a postmodern element, is thus the least escapist of all types of Fantasy (here I use the term fantasy as a publisher would label-wise, just for the sake of the hypothetical).

How does this impact the current debates in the fantasy field. First, a China Mieville novel with a milieu in which Marxist or Socialist society may be the norm is no more or less escapist than J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy of pastoral bliss threatened by industrialization. Ian R. MacLeod’s The Light Ages, in which a socialist revolution fails, is also not any more or less escapist in the sense that, no postmodern technique being employed, the reader is still allowed to escape into the fiction of “suspending disbelief.” And M. John Harrison’s “forgiveness” of fantasy in his last short story collection by changing “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” to “A Young Man’s Journey to London” does not in any sense change the escapist element or lack thereof, no matter how important that title change (and thus emphasis change) is to Harrison himself. (Whether he is describing London or an entry-point to the fantastic Viriconium, Harrison is still describing a place that exists only in his head.)

All of which is by way of actually saying–I don’t know how useful it is to talk about escapist versus non-escapist fantasy. I am not claiming that postmodern fantasy is superior–just that the existence of postmodern fantasy allows for arguments like the above. Perhaps “escapist fantasy”, or a degree of it, should not be dismissed so readily, considering that most everyone writing today is engaging in it. ;)

(This is a musing in progress, so no brickbats.)



  1. says

    Jeff, maybe it’s my Master’s degree in philosophy talking, but I’m not sure the above adds up.

    I don’t particularly follow how something being fictional automatically renders it incapable of matching reality in terms of real-ness, largely because something being existent in the real world seems to be hardly a necessary prerequisite for it to be real: the Global War on Terror is real, but hardly exists in any real sense given that it is necessarily waged in local conflicts at all times.

    More importantly, though, I’m not sure that realism is a necessary condition for escapism. It seems absolutely correct that realism is related to whether or not something is fantasy or not, but I’m not sure that relates in any meaningful way to escapism.

    By the way, I love your blog and read it regularly. I’ve even linked to it on my own. I hope the above wasn’t a brickbat, because it’s not intended as such.


    PS: I doubt you’ll remember, but you autographed a copy of City of Saints and Madmen for me when my girlfriend wrote you an email when she allowed her friend to borrow my copy of the vanity edition hardcover and ruined it. You also sent other goodies as well. Thanks for that. You seriously rock.