A novel is a circuit that the reader completes. It is a machine that doesn’t work until the reader plugs it into their brain. Some books don’t suit some readers; the interface is imperfect and the reading is unsatisfactory. That’s not a fault of the book or the reader. It’s just a mismatch.
I’ve blogged about escapism before, perhaps too stridently:
Because although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pure escapism, it is inherently a way of ignoring life, surely? I mean – what else can it be? It is escape. It is closing yourself off from those experiences that you don’t want to think about. Even more extremely, it is closing yourself off from your world. Wouldn’t it be better for a book to actually explore and illuminate the fantastic in life, or cast the mundane in an extraordinary light (i.e. change your life/the world a little bit by being relevant to it/discussing it) than just enable you to ignore it for a while? It’s perfectly possible for SFF to do this as well as any other kind of fiction.
We can’t on one hand be proud to be escapist and then on the other complain that we’re not taken seriously by the literary community. Personally, I think all genres should be regarded equally, but to me that requires SFF (as an entity) to drop the whole ‘escapism is great’ thing. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, but it is the opposite of cultural involvement.
But really, now, I think that I just don’t believe in escapism. I don’t think there really is such a thing. The reader is reading in this world; the book is read in this world. This world shapes the reader’s reading of any text, whether it is intended as escapist or not. The book is completed only by the very real-world mind of the reader. It doesn’t matter how appealing or comforting or escapist the book is; it only exists in the context of the reader’s life, and can only be experienced as such. A novel is a circuit that the reader completes. The reader does not escape into the world of the novel; they bring the world of the novel down into themselves, into this world, and the contrast between the two worlds – the reaction, the alchemy that takes places inside the reader’s mind – is what generates the effect of the novel. It all happens inside the reader. And although that means that the reader cannot really escape their life – which we all know, deep down, anyway – it also means that they are changing their life. There is no escape, but there is change, which – in my opinion – is better.