Is it OK to read purely for escape? And is that what we need as the year draws to a close? Kit Whitfield has some thoughts.
It’s that time of year again—that magical season familiar to all SFFH people, where elves sprinkle their magical reminders all over social media that our deepest Christmas wish? It’s to do it like they do in Iceland.
The Jólabókaflóðið, or Christmas book flood, happens in the run-up to December: everyone goes out and buys books for everyone else. Then, on the 24th, they exchange them, and spend the evening curled up with hot chocolate, reading in heavenly peace.
Oh, it sounds wonderful, doesn‘t it? Especially to those of us haring around at Christmas, wrestling with train timetables and surrounded with overexcited children, shopping, cooking, organising, and generally working on what‘s supposed to be a holiday. But what it it about books that makes the idea so perfect?
Well, there‘s another thing we hear a lot in the SFFH community—heck, if you‘re in the mood for a fight, just go online and say the word. The word is ‘escapism‘ . It‘s thrown at secondary-world fantasy in particular, but whatever your groove, it stings. We deny it. We redefine it. We try to reclaim it. But whatever we do, it‘s a hangnail on the thumb that holds the page.
Is it okay to read for escape? There‘s the classic rebuff by C.S. Lewis: “I never fully understood it until my friend Professor Tolkein asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers.” And, attributed to Michael Moorcock, we have the famous return quip: “Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.” Now, Tolkein and Lewis were nostalgic, small-c conservatives, believers in the power of imagination to inspire virtue, where Moorcock is an anarchist whose books, by design, “[state] quite directly that one should serve neither gods nor masters but become one’s own master.” They’re pulling in opposite directions: warm imaginings of inspiring heroes, or plain reminders to trust no hero above ourselves.
But something stands out here. These men are closer to arguing the same thing than I think they mean to be. Books, according to them, are always moral. They vary politically and aethetically, but for them, one way or another stories encourage us to pull our socks up. But what if your socks are down around your ankles and you’re just too tired to pull them up one more bloody time?
I didn’t expect to get literary advice from a book called The Selfish Pig’s Guide To Caring. (Author Hugh Marriott.) I read it because I’m a carer and blunt advice is the only advice that helps. But one of its chapters talks about ‘respite’—the name for an official break, where someone else steps in and takes over your caring responsibilities and you get to do . . . something. Something else. Be someone somewhere who isn’t just a staggering heap of responsibilities. Take a little time to recover before you burn out completely and wind up in hospital yourself.
Organising and affording respite care is a nightmare, but the book is frank that the alternative is worse. ‘Remember,’ Marriott says, ‘it’s break or break.’
And the break has to be something different. Back in the days where we had an economy, I even used to get a couple of hundred pounds a year from the government for ‘carer respite’, and I had to present receipts to prove I’d spent it on a theatre ticket, a restaurant meal, a haircut—something purely for my own enjoyment. I had to produce actual paperwork to show I’d at least tried to step out of my rut.
You see what I’m getting at, right?
There’s another comment that stuck with me; it comes from Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, in which her narrator mentally defends herself for writing ‘Costume Gothics’ for ordinary women:
“Escape wasn’t a luxury for them, it was a necessity. They had to get it somehow. And when they were too tired to invent escapes of their own, mine were available for them at the corner drugstore, neatly packaged like the other painkillers.”
But there are painkillers and painkillers. Be honest: what kills more pain—an aspirin, or something that gets you good and high, showing you beautiful visions? Because while in the real world it’s a bad idea to dive into an opium dream—especially when you have real responsibilities you have to get back to later—when it comes to books, there are no side effects. You can spend the same twenty minutes reading a cookbook, or a wild flight of fancy that, just for a while, takes your mind on a sorely-needed vacation to somewhere else.
And when you put it down, well, your responsibilities are still there. You didn’t escape them. But you had a bit of respite, and now you’re a little rested, a little better able to face them again. Even political responsibilities, if you want them—I’ve campaigned hard, and read to recover, then got back to the fight refreshed.
We have things we want to escape, but reading even the sternest truths doesn’t actually help us escape them. That, we have to do in the read world. That’s the sternest truth of all: there is no book we can escape into. Not really.
But we can keep ourselves well enough to do what needs doing—and for that, we need respite. Sometimes, a shelf of other worlds is what keeps you well enough to face this one.
It’s December and I’m tired, and I bet you are too. I hope you have a peaceful winter, but if you don’t, books are portable, and they open doors. Never mind escapism: SFFH is there for respitism—and if a book does that for you, it’s a rare and extraordinary thing.
Meet the author
Kit Whitfield is, most recently, the author of the Gyrford series, a folk horror fantasy about cold iron, wild fey and trying to use the sense you were born with. The first of these, In The Heart of Hidden Things, was longlisted for a BSFA; the second, All The Hollow Of The Sky, is out in hardback. She lives in London in a neurodiverse family, and loves it when people come up for a chat at conventions.