In Defense of “Escapist” Literature

(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


15 thoughts on “In Defense of “Escapist” Literature

  1. atthysgage says:

    Yes, yes, and yes indeed! So much yes. I’ve always had the greatest fondness for works that seem to exist in the cracks between genres, between categories, those stubborn gems that refuse to be sorted into any other box but their own. I’m thinking of Moby Dick, for example, so much more than an escapist adventure story, alive with all those thorny allegories and wild, explosions of prose. (And yet, that book was largely a flop commercially. The public greatly preferred the less problematic South Sea adventures of Melville’s earlier works.) I’m thinking of Nabokov, who turned out book after book, each different from the last until the end of his days (and honestly, can Ada really be called anything but speculative fiction? And what the hell is Pale Fire?) I’m thinking of Borges, who so completely reinvented the short story in his own gnomic image, that he remains to this day the sole true inhabitant of his own genre: Borgesian.

    But yeah, they all have something is common—they all value writing, the sculpting of great sentences, above other concerns. Story may be king when it comes to selling books, but great sentences are the precious minerals of the writing biz. Whether left rough or polished to a high luster, they will always inspire a shudder of thrill (and, personally, envy.) I can escape as easily into that, as I can into any ripping yarn. But ultimately? Nothing prevents science fiction or fantasy or horror (or detective fiction—paging Dashiell Hammett) from being a masterpiece of interpretation, a wonder of subtlety, a pure prose dazzler. I say, let’s go for it all.

    It’s good to have you back again, Carl E. Reed.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Right on, Atthys! Power to the prose poets who hold up a mirror to society and show us ourselves reflected as goblins, good witches, knights-errant, obsessed hunters of white whales, awe-struck wanderers in an infinite Borgesian nexus of books, wise-cracking private eyes hard as blued gunmetal, et. al. It seems to me that people have an instinctive hunger for story and the chaos-ordering, life-sustaining power of narrative because we understand that all–all, alas!–are flaring embers book-ended both sides of their oftimes absurd existence by an annihilating Stygian abyss. More simply: story nourishes, scratches that itch for meaning and perspective that both ennobles and enlightens. What would we be without language, without books, without story? Ignorant clockwork insects architecting solipsistic monuments to the primitivist necessities of brute existence–and nothing more.

    Liked by 4 people

    • atthysgage says:

      “It seems to me that people have an instinctive hunger for story and the chaos-ordering, life-sustaining power of narrative…” Indeed. That hunger is so basic that, even when confronted with the random firing of memory neurons while we dream, our brains still try to stitch those elements into a narrative structure, something that at least has the shape of a story. I hereby dub us “homo fabula faber,” the story-making species.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s surely a false dichotomy, ‘pleasure’ vs ‘pleasure and understanding’ – how can a story not give us understanding? Not overtly perhaps, but implicitly through its structure, cohesion and characters. The ‘escapists’ don’t necessarily have the pretension of furthering our understanding, but they still hold up a mirror to our existence. In the best cases, interpretive writers complexify the reflection. In the worst, they clutter it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    The sculpting of great sentences – something you excel at.

    I can see putting many of these extravagant phrases, or similar, into Sly’s and John Dee’s mouths as they debate and discuss the world and its many injustices. I hope you take that as a compliment. I intend it as one.

    Christ! Sly again! My husband says, do you have to use everything for Sly?

    Yes, I do.

    Plot matters far less to me than style and the quality of thought. How else could The Cloister And The Hearth be one of my favorite books?

    We’ve heard, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. For me, a story is what happens between your plans for a plot, while you’re trying to move things along. Which, unfortunately, most readers seem to expect. Damn them! I like a story that’s marinated in its juices for a good long time. I’ll get my folks from A to B to C eventually. Let’s stop and smell the flowers. Cut to the chase, I don’t do that. Ever.

    On all points, I agree with you completely.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. GD Deckard says:

    The good professor has constructed an argument in a mind bubble, where it’s logic has to deal only with the mental constructs within the bubble. It makes great sense until the bubble is exposed to reality whereupon, as any child knows, bubbles burst.

    I don’t know any better than the professor, of course, but I strongly suspect that a book is defined not by arbitrarily vague criteria like “escapist” & “interpretive” but by the unique experience of the reader. Stranger In A Strange Land is a great book in my experience because it added to my understanding of human behavior. Catch 22 was a great experience because it revealed the bureaucratic idiocy all around me when I read it while serving during the Vietnam War. These are great books because so many readers have enjoyed them for whatever reasons of their own.

    Professors should never be taken too seriously.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Carl E. Reed says:

    @Atthys: Homo fabula faber, eh? “The story-making species”. I Like that. I like that a lot!

    @Mimi: I know you can dispense no higher praise than that which you have conveyed to me here: “I can see putting many of these extravagant phrases, or similar, into Sly’s and John Dee’s mouths as they debate and discuss the world and its many injustices.” Thank you very kindly; very kindly indeed, madam! Only—be sure and give me a crediting footnote if you do so, eh? 😉

    @GD: Good points. My intention in writing the essay was not to bash Prof. Laurence Perrine—I have great respect for the professor’s erudition, wit and scholarly manner of argumentation—but merely to point out that his escapist/interpretive dichotomy re: the “two poles between which the world of fiction spins” bugged me the longer I thought about it. (I originally wrestled with this question in an earlier version of this essay some two decades ago.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mimispeike says:

    Carl, I meant to add that I would give you a big plug in my footnotes.

    I don’t know if you are aware of it, but I have made footnotes a huge thing in my story, sometimes as a comic device, sometimes as a way to get in stuff that I couldn’t figure out how to add any other way. I’m going to give GD a credit for Glabelhammies, you a credit for whatever I steal from you, I’ve already given a credit to Ann Wroe, for her wonderful history of a southern France fourteenth century town,* that was (I believe) her doctoral dissertation at Oxford thirty years ago, that she got published.

    I tracked her down to the BBC and asked permission to borrow some of her glorious description of mountainous landscape. She kindly gave it, and I have her enthusiastic mention already composed and in my novella.

    Footnotes are a damn lot of fun. You should try them. I’d love to see what you do with them.


    * A Fool And His Money is stunningly written. I recommend it highly. It’s a delight to read.**
    ** Footnotes: my newest toy, that I abuse, like I do everything else.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Carl E. Reed says:

    @Mimi: LOL! Yes, I’m very aware that the glory of your writing–like Edward Gibbon’s–is in your footnotes. (As someone once remarked of the author of The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    I’ve also lifted a sweet phrase from Antonin Scalia, and given him a credit. Too bad he’s no longer able to read it, and take a fit over it.

    We had to wait a century for The Annotated Alice in Wonderland. I am creating my annotated version of Sly on the spot.

    I am committing what some view as the gravest sin of all: I write to please myself. Those of a mind to come along on this here toad’s Wild Ride, well, hop on the bus, Gus.

    I’m being too dismissive, of course. My choices may not work for many. But they surely work for me. I’m having a good time inventing my zany format, of a piece (say I) with my zany content. Since I don’t expect a profit out of it, that’s my payoff.

    Liked by 1 person

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