(Introductory Note: Many of the literary references in the following essay drawn from John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction.)
In his essay Escape and Interpretation Professor Laurence Perrine argues that all literature can be divided into two broad categories, “escapist” and “interpretive”:
“Escape literature is that written purely for entertainment—to help us pass the time agreeably. Interpretive literature is written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life. Escape literature takes us away from the real world: it enables us temporarily to forget our troubles. Interpretive literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world: it enables us to understand our troubles. Escape literature has as its only object pleasure. Interpretive literature has as its object pleasure plus understanding.”
Perhaps anticipating the objections raised by his critics, Perrine hastens to add:
“Escape and interpretation are not two great bins, into one or the other of which we can toss any given story. Rather, they are opposite ends of a scale—the two poles between which the world of fiction spins.”
The problem with this definition of escapist vs. interpretive literature is that it encourages the reader to denigrate and undervalue works with a higher fantasy-to-reality quotient than those books currently shelved under the headings of “literature” or “general fiction” in the bookstores. By this criterion, a novel that concerned itself with, say, the plight of black slaves in the antebellum American South would automatically be accorded a higher literary status than a book chronicling the experiences of an earthling raised on Mars come back to his home planet to become a martyred messiah. The personal conflicts and drama occasioned by a suburban American housewife attempting to bed every married man in her neighborhood would be judged a more “interpretive” work than the adventures of an Icelandic-legends-inspired group of halflings, elves, dwarves and wizards. Using this standard, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (that wooden work of stilted dialogue, crude stereotypes and breathless melodrama) must be accorded higher literary status than Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land (the underground science fiction classic that addressed themes of free love, the empty authoritarianism of organized religion and the unthinking cruelties perpetuated by willfully stupid, xenophobic people upon the nonconformist and the iconoclast). The twenty-four Newsday writers who collaborated in the making of the satirical hoax Naked Came the Stranger would be hailed as better writers than J. R. R. Tolkien. Is this really a workable standard? Is Perrine’s escapist-vs.-interpretive dichotomy a useful criterion by which we may judge the excellence, relevance and general importance of different types of literature?
I argue: most emphatically not. In place of Perrine’s principle I propose that we should—nay, must—discuss literature in terms of its arete (a Greek term signifying excellence). Normally translated “virtue”, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy informs us:
“. . . arete refers to a quality the possession of which either constitutes the possessor as, or causes it to be, a good instance of its kind. Thus sharpness is an arete of a knife, strength an arete of a boxer, etc. Since in order to be a good instance of its kind an object normally has to possess several excellences, the term may designate each of those excellences severally or the possession of them all together—overall or total excellence.”
Surely this makes more sense? In fact, isn’t that the very way we contextualize and judge literature, highbrow and low, when we communicate our opinions to one another? Who but a pedantic fool would judge a suspense thriller by the same criterions as literary fiction? Shall we pit a Robert E. Howard swords-&-sorcery fantasy novel against Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and argue over which book is the more “interpretive”?
What of Perrine’s assertion that “interpretive literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world”? Many members of academia and the general reading public, in thrall to realism and the intellectual bigotry that equates realism with relevance—and relevance with the celebration of the mundane and quotidian, the modern and the commonplace—would automatically judge a book that featured elves, space ships or vampires a “lesser” work than a book that confined itself to descriptions of people, places and things that actually exist, or have existed.
And yet—and yet! Do not the majority of readers profess belief in the supernatural? Are not most readers believers in gods, angels, demons, “principalities and powers” of one kind or another? What of atheists and agnostics, who may reject all religionist or mystical claims to epistemological knowledge yet still believe in the importance and influence of the Id, the subconscious, the “reptilian brain”, or any of the other myriad atavistic drives and impulses which work to influence a man or woman through genetic determinism? Dare we reject an entire body of “escapist” literature if it speaks powerfully to this aspect of man’s existence? Are we to ignore and denigrate man’s shadow-self: his nightmare fears and wishful fantasias, opiate visions and lurid midnight madnesses, fleeting hypnogogic visions and clarion calls from “realms beyond”? To do so, I would argue, is to be escapist in the worst sense: intellectually dogmatic, creatively constipated and psychologically jejune. (For as C. S. Lewis has noted, “Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility.”)
In conclusion, I argue that this escapist vs. interpretive benchmark by which we are encouraged to judge the seriousness of literature misses the mark. It is useful, yes—but only as one of many criterions by which we may judge a book’s excellencies, or regrettable lack thereof.
Carl E. Reed