Escapism vs. Engagement: Perspectives on the Functions of Literature

by krstaten

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is literature actually does for us.

What I heard a lot when I was younger–and what I used to say when I was younger, because it made sense, even though it didn’t quite feel right to me at the time–was that books were an escape.

Which is absolutely a legitimate way to feel. Imagine you’re young, a child, and you have a difficult life or a difficult period in life–say, the death of a relative, a volatile home environment, bullying peers in school–and you discover books. Books with heroes who right the wrongs of the world. Books with faraway places. Books where justice is always done, or even if it isn’t, that world is so unlike the world you know that it’s still almost like a vacation. You feel like you can travel anywhere, see anything, and you feel so much less trapped in what you know.

I give this example for children because in my personal experience many people who see literature purely as a form of escape discovered this method of escape at a young age; also because children tend to have less control over their lives and this kind of escape (whether through books or through something else) may be the best thing they have to cope. But it’s not always or exclusively children who feel this way, and that’s okay.

What I’ve noticed more as I get older, though, is a whole other use of books that seems at odds with what I grew up hearing. Rather than using literature to escape from the world we know, we use literature to more deeply engage with it. When I was young, this didn’t make as much sense to me, but the older I get, the more right it feels.

We use fiction as a means to more deeply understand the world. When I was young, it felt good to delve into fiction because in an unjust world, it was nice to have these stories where good unambiguously triumphs over evil. Harry defeats Voldemort. Frodo destroys the One Ring and ends the evil of Sauron. But even in these stories, we have to realize it’s not so clear-cut. There are themes of corruption, unity, fear, politics, globalism, etc., all at play here, and these are things that allow us to take a step back and get a new perspective on the world we really live in.

I find it hard to read The Great Gatsby, for example, as an “escape.” It’s a story that may distract me from my own life on a surface level, but it is a reminder of the dangers of nostalgic longing, the way that life moves forward while our hearts move backward and the ways in which that can destroy us. The books that have made the greatest impact on me as a person have been the books that pushed me into a realization about what it means to be alive in the world I live in.

That isn’t to say escapism isn’t valid or even important. J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories,” puts a lot of emphasis on defending fantasy literature in particular as serving primary functions of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Far be it from me to dispute the literary opinions of J.R.R. Tolkien. And while Escapism and Engagement seem to be mutually exclusive, I think they play a part together. Even the function of escape in literature allows us a far enough removal from our fears, hang-ups, and general problems–whether personal or societal–to allow for a new perspective.

Stories are about so much more than their plots and characters. When we read carefully, stories reveal things to us that are hard to see when viewed only from our own limited perspectives. Like showing a fish what water is from the perspective of land and air. We swim in this culture that we create and that pushes back to create us without really having a chance to understand what it really is, until we see it through the perspective of media–not necessarily only books, but books are pretty darn good at it.