I don’t hear it as often as I used to, which may reflect the decline in reading overall—or maybe it’s because those who used it most have gone to the Great Library in the Sky. The description does seem to have a sneering quality to it, that implication of not reading the “right” kind of fiction—usually published in the 19th century at the latest, because surely nobody born after 1820 has had anything worthwhile to say, right?
What brought this to mind was a recent The New Yorker article called The Percy Jackson Problem. A literary-minded mom writes about Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels, which her son incidentally loves to pieces. If you’re like me, and haven’t read them, they’re about an adolescent demigod, the son of Poseidon and a human mother. There’s this tension between “well, at least he’s reading,” and “but he’s not reading the claaaaaaaaaassics” oozing all through the article. Still, she at least implies that he knows more about Greek mythology at this point than she does. I’m intrigued, and will have to check them out myself now.
I remember those pre-junior high years as a near-dystopia, not that it got much better afterwards. Books were my escape from that life, and even back then I knew I wanted to write my own stories someday. I read a lot of different things, but none of them were “classics” nor titles that literary types of the day would have approved (with the possible exception of Rabbit Hill). One series I remember was The Boxcar Children, the stories of four orphaned kids who moved into an abandoned boxcar. I’ve forgotten the title of another story, but it was about a brother/sister duo who rowed out to an island on a lake and got stranded there. And of course The Hardy Boys, about two brothers who solve mysteries. (Ironic that, since I was such a timid child.) I suppose you could classify the first two as survivalist tales, but without the boxcar full of weaponry or tinfoil-hat politics.at, since I was such a timid child.) My White Pickups books, from that angle, are an adult version of those older stories—abandoned or stranded, people fight to survive and somehow beat the odds.
I read a lot, and I needed stories that would take me Elsewhere for a while. Things did get better in college, but the habit was set. I got into Dungeons and Dragons, and that was addictive—acting out a story on the fly, where your own decisions and reactions affected how it ended. As you might imagine, that pulled me even farther into the fantasy realm. In our D&D group, we passed around our own book collections. I discovered The Sword of Shannara, Dragonriders of Pern, and the collaborative Thieves’ World anthologies came out around then. I spent the summer of 1980 in Biloxi MS and points south (i.e. the Gulf itself, working offshore helping cooks feed hungry drilling platform workers). I took a sheaf of scrap computer paper with me for my off-time, and wrote the first novel I actually finished, The War of the Seventh Trumpet. I never gave serious thought to finding a publisher, because even in the 1980s that kind of fantasy was already getting formulaic. (Not to mention it’s a typical first effort, pretty awful.) While I won’t ever publish that one without some extensive rewrites, it became background material for other Termag stories.
Thirty years later, here we are. I’ve published four Accidental Sorcerers stories, with the fifth (Lost in Nightwalk) coming out later this month and the sixth (Beyond the Sea of Storms) drafted. A sorcerer and his two love-struck apprentices travel Termag and have lots of adventures.
It’s escapist fiction, and I’m okay with that.
Sometimes—or all too often—you just need to get away from everyday circumstances. Fly that spaceship to Antares and fight the Vegans (aliens from Vega, that is… seems like they’re always hostile). Or follow Bailar, Sura, and Mik around Termag and see what kind of scrape they get embroiled in this time. Or stay out of those talking pickup trucks and try to make a better world for yourself, and the other four dozen people around you.
In the Victorian era, they had what they called “improving” literature. The “right” kind of books, written by the “right” kind of people. Maybe it was about building character, a phrase used only by people who aren’t doing the work (or reading those kind of books). Reading escapist fiction lets you try on a different person—that timid boy I was could become a survivalist, or even a hero, if only for a little while. Did I grow out of that timidity, or was I “improved” by escapism?
And now, I have another escape—I mean a new book—to get ready. Until then…