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Now, More Than Ever, Is the Time for ‘Escapist Fiction’


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Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA offers an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. When I was getting my degree, I read countless essays where genre fiction was referred to as “escapist fiction.” The essays we read were (of course) written by proponents of literary fiction who made it clear that genre fiction was something common and vulgar which should only be sold from seedy shops in back alleys. Genre fiction wasn’t true literature (affect a snobbish accent and be sure to look down your nose). Genre or popular fiction was deemed insignificant and those who read it weren’t as cultured as readers of literary fiction. At the time, I didn’t pay the labels much attention. Different strokes for different folks. Sticks and stones… (you get my point). After all, what difference did it make what people read as long as they were reading? However, 2020 changed that for me.

Let’s start with the basics. Neither of these are real. Literary and genre are both fiction—imaginary.

Not sure what the difference is between literary fiction and genre fiction? Me either. So, I looked it up and couldn’t find a good definition that I could wrap my mind around. Let’s start with the basics. Neither of these are real. Literary and genre are both fiction—imaginary. Yet, literary fiction is ‘supposedly’ more focused on character and emotion. I found definitions that described literary fiction using words like serious and artistic. Literary fiction is claimed not to provide an escape from reality, but to plunge readers even deeper into the “real world.” Of course, that would be the real world that the author has created (in case you forgot…it’s still not really real). Literary fiction is intended to make readers think about the real world, their place in it and…well, life. While Genre/commercial/popular fiction is much easier to define. Genre fiction typically is more plot driven and easier to categorize. There are somewhere between five and seven categories (depending on who you listen to) including: mystery/crime, romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, western, and historical. These categories are pretty easy to figure out. If the book has a romance as the main theme, then…it’s most likely a romance. Got magic? Then, the book is probably fantasy. Of course, you could have a historical mystery with paranormal elements and a romantic subplot, but let’s stick to the easy stuff. These books create an imaginary world that the reader can escape into rather than focusing on the deeper realities/issues of the characters imaginary existence. The bottom line is, it’s all fiction. Confused, yet? Let’s forget about the labels for now.

Back to the reality of 2020 and 2021. In one year, we’ve experienced: social and political unrest, a global pandemic, suspension of big money sporting events (including the Olympics), and a society where Lysol, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were hot commodities that people were selling on the black market? I couldn’t have written that plot twist in a million years, and who would have believed it? Even Disney World closed its gates in 2020. If the “Happiest Place on Earth” is closed, what’s a person to do?

If ever there was a time to escape from reality, 2020 was that year. Does anyone really want to spend more time plunged into the serious reality of life in the middle of a global pandemic? Frankly, I can’t escape fast enough. So, given a choice between literary fiction and genre fiction, sign me up for escapist aka genre fiction. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, award winning, bestselling, fantasy author, Neil Gaiman explained things this way:

“If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

While quarantined at home, the thought of reading literary fiction never crossed my mind (I’m not that high-brow). I wanted/needed to escape and genre fiction held the key. The beauty of genre fiction is that there’s something for everyone. If you like to read books with the promise of a happily ever after, then there are tons of romance with heat levels that range from tepid (sweet) to bow-chick-a-bow-wow smoking (erotic). If you want to escape into a world with fantastic beasts, wizards and magic, then fantasy will be just the thing you need. For me, my escape is mystery. Sure, there may be dead bodies, but unlike the real world where people die and cases remain unsolved and justice is thwarted, in books mysteries are solved (at least most of them). Similar to romance, mysteries have a gage of a different type. There are clean/cozy mysteries with no sex, no bad words, no blood, guts and gore (you might even get a recipe for a good chocolate chip cookie and who doesn’t love a good chocolate chip cookie?). On the opposite end, there are true crimes, noir, or traditional mysteries. Mysteries (most of them) provide the satisfaction that justice will prevail. In a time of uncertainty and chaos, that promise is much needed.

A Tourist’s Guide to Murder, the sixth book in my Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series, provided an escape for me in many ways. My sleuth, mystery bookshop owner and aspiring writer, Samantha Washington, takes a trip to England along with her grandmother, Nana Jo, and ‘The Girls’ from the retirement village (Dorothy, Ruby Mae, and Irma), to research her next British historic cozy mystery. She takes a mystery lovers’ tour that includes everything from true crime walks at the places of Jack the Ripper’s murders. To a museum created for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, at 221b Baker Street (yes, there really is a museum for this fictional detective). After months in quarantine where the only excitement I had were my weekly trips to the mailbox (don’t judge), escaping into the British countryside was therapeutic. I’ve made a couple of trips to England, but there’s never enough time to see everything. In my books I spent hours (probably more than was necessary) researching locations, looking at pictures and getting lost in the research. Just because I couldn’t travel in real life, didn’t keep me from traveling and living vicariously through my protagonist.

Writing a murder mystery (even if it’s cozy) provided another level of escape. For a few moments I get to play god. I create the world, the characters and the rules. I am in total and complete control and I can mete out justice and retribution to those I deem worthy of it. The power of life and death is literally in my pen. What a rush. I may not be able to control what people do outside of the pages of a book, but inside those pages everyone wears a mask, adheres to rules of social distancing, and are kind to one another. Fail to follow the rules and risk the wrath of…the author. Now, that’s an escape.

Lovers of literary fiction can enjoy their artistic plunge into…realism. However, if you need a mental break from the real world (and who doesn’t), recognize that genre fiction serves a very valid/useful purpose. And, if anyone tries to make you feel that what you’re reading is common, unworthy, or somehow less important by labeling it “escapist fiction,” don’t listen and don’t allow anyone to belittle your choice of reading material. Gaiman goes on to quote, “As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”

Don’t let anyone keep you imprisoned inside a global pandemic, a politically divided world. Take a break and escape into another land. Get lost in a good mystery. Solving a puzzling mystery can be invigorating and quite fulfilling. Travel, see the world from the comfort and safety of your home. For a few short hours, escape into the British countryside, tour museums, and visit the home of Agatha Christie. Follow the clues, sort through the red herrings and figure out whodunit. Trust me, escaping can be a wonderful thing.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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