Escaping the Literary Stoic

Literature, Escapism, and the Myth of Value

I’ve always found it interesting that, despite its success, genre fiction consistently retains a reputation as, for lack of a better term, an inferior form of literature. If, of course, the literati will allow me to even ascribe a label of such high value to this sort of writing. Writers of science fiction and fantasy have long understood that they would have a harder time being taken seriously in comparison to their non-fiction and ‘literary’ fiction counterparts. God forbid you write romance.

Arrogance in a trench coat

To a not insignificant extent this dismissive response is due to a perception that genre fiction is ‘escapist’. I don’t argue, nor doubt, that, for many, escapism is part of what draws people to genre fiction. The world, unfortunately, is the fort of place that may require regular breaks. Personally, however, I can’t remember picking up fiction because I wanted to escape the world or be someone else. I just enjoyed reading. If I want to get out of the world I’ll sleep. I doubt I’m alone in this. I doubt I’m the only one who finds it presumptuous, if not somewhat patronising, to tell people that they engage in good storytelling only because they’re looking for an alternative to downing bottles of whiskey or shooting up.

Behind the implied derogation in the accusation of escapism is a presumption that escapism itself stems from an inability to adequately stand up to the rigours and challenges of daily life. As a result, to engage in escapism is the admission that you can’t hack it. This presumably means that the readers of nonfiction and literary fiction are made of stouter material. Which is to conclude that genre fiction is the literary equivalent of candy floss. This boolean interpretation of pastime intentions, rooted in the automatic assumption that the subject of the accusation is attempting to replace uncomfortable complexity with comforting simplicity, is undermined by the fact that the means of attack are in themselves comforting and simplistic.

More baffling, this in no way appears to hold weight under even light scrutiny. No writer in history has ever advised another writer to create something comfortable. The advice is, in fact, precisely the opposite. Brutalise your characters and through them the reader. It’s not about killing your darlings, per se – they don’t have to die. But they must suffer. This goes back as long as people have been telling stories – take the Odyssey as an example. Odysseus, having dragged himself and his crew half way around the Mediterranean, following a ten-year war, has a good shot at getting home. Naturally, being the wisest of heroes, Odysseus decides that this is the perfect opportunity to stick his finger up at Poseidon. Poseidon is notably petty and already pretty determined to keep Odysseus from returning home, so blinding Poseidon’s cyclops son and tagging ‘Odysseus wuz ere’ on said son’s face while he was passed out drunk… Guess how that one went.

Now, from the standpoint of a modern story, and explicitly ignoring all context for The Odyssey, I could probably find a few bones to pick with Homer over his epic poem. But if we’re taking this assertion that genre fiction is all about making the protagonist look good, pumping endorphins into the reader and offering them, to steal a metaphor from Matthew Inman, a pair of trousers to wear, then it fails. Odysseus does, in my fogged memory, get his fair share of reach-arounds from Homer, but if the idea of escapist fiction is simply to distract us from our daily lives, and all genre fiction is inherently escapist, then I repeat: The Odyssey fails. Odysseus, for all his cunning and He-man strength, is still flawed in his colossal hubris, which causes problems for him and tends to result in a good chance of death for everyone around him. For all of Homer’s hype-manning, like most characters in Greek mythology, Odysseus is a bit of an arsehole. At the root of this is the fact that he’s done well for himself. Helping out in the Trojan War, palling up with Athena, getting off with Penelope – he’s earned his respect. He’s also forgotten that actions have consequences and doesn’t seem to possess the ability to take an accurate assessment of himself.

So if I’m trying to escape daily life, I’m perhaps not looking for a lesson in self-awareness and humility from almost three thousand years ago. Look around you – is there a more pertinent message for our current narcissism-propagating egocentric age of selfie sticks and motivational quotes? Hard to think of one on this peak from where I look down on all of you. Drunken giants and bitchy water deities aren’t the main event in The Odyssey. As with a great deal of fiction, the underlying elements are the things that resonate with the reader far longer than the immediate exoticisms they are dressed in. Sure, the ancient Greeks did believe in Poseidon and ‘don’t talk shit about deities’ is a very literal message on the one hand. On the other, the idea that Poseidon is just a soggy immortal who doesn’t like losing, not a representation of limitations, is to do ancient storytellers a disservice. You can take the points of this story and replace the sea monsters, sailors, and gods with spreadsheets, tax fraud, and the government, but the ‘pride before a fall’ narrative wouldn’t cease to exist and the story itself is no better or worse because some elements are more immediately recognisable.

Back to school

But let’s assume that all of the literature that you read is realist, emphasising all the struggles and tedium in the life of the ‘common man’. What is this proving? Is the conclusion that people should draw, that you are a down to earth juggernaut of the world with no time for the frivolities of the imagination? From there, can we say that this focus on projecting and emphasising the pragmatic and real is supposed to illustrate some superiority of character or emotion over more exotic scenarios? From there are we to draw the idea that a person who prefers their fiction less grounded is inherently less emotionally robust or more prone to character flaws?

Pragmatism isn’t a personality constant. It is perfectly plausible to be pragmatic and down to earth as the situation requires it, but also not to carry over goal-oriented behaviours where they are not a priority. The world is not a boot camp and you are not a drill sergeant for words.

Now let’s say that a book is escapist. Let’s say that the person reading it is doing so with the aim of getting away from bills, deadlines, their job, debt, relationship troubles – you name it. Can we not argue that knowing when to step away, assess their state honestly, and take the time out to recharge, is nothing but pragmatic? If anything, we should be more concerned by the culturally-testosteronic insistence on ignoring your own mental health for the sake of other people’s weightless opinions. The result, of course, is that if there isn’t an answer to the issue creating the impetus for distance, the resultant anxiety is liable to increase. That pressure has to go somewhere, and without a venting mechanism it is likely to cause damage to the person, and their surroundings, if that pressure cannot be contained or addressed. Knowing this, to encourage wilful disregard is impractical if not hypocritical if we are to, at the same time, propose that fiction, presumably of a certain style, can provide a vector for self-knowing on the way to improvement and thereby implying assuagement to the sources of underlying disruption. Yet it seems the idea of the relentlessly practical person as an inherently stronger character remains. While the idea of the stoically enduring pragmatist is ironically romantic, it is also a potentially dangerous lie.

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Strength and weakness being predicated on the basis of endurance alone is fallacious, being reliant on an its adherents maintaining a false dichotomy that appears to be founded on a false equivalence:

Genre fiction deals with the overly simplified and unrealistic. Therefore, literature outside of genre fiction must deal with the complex and real. Focus on the simple and unrealistic is indicative of weakness. Focus on the complex and real is indicative of strength. Therefore, genre fiction is for people who are too weak for reality, while those who do not read genre fiction are strong enough for reality.

None of this is true. It also just seems to divide the entire scope of readers into people who read genre and people who do not, and never the twain shall meet. That’s also not true. So what’s going on? Insecurity. There’s a sense that this is less about what people read and more about people trying to prove something. Certainly, it seems to me, that the steady inference of romanticised stoicism leaking through seems to carry the whiff of over-compensatory machismo about it.

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