Is Escapist Fiction Irresponsible in 2017?

 Image credit: Jim Cooke

Image credit: Jim Cooke

2016 was rough. From the looks of it 2017 is going to be a nasty one, too. As a writer, reader, and otherwise voracious consumer of most pop culture, I've been feeling guilty lately. With the political awakening I experienced during the presidential primaries and subsequently disappointing election, I'm plugged into the real world more acutely than ever before. This means constantly checking the news. Poring over headlines. Checking Twitter. Getting into fights on Facebook. After all, the future of our country depends on We The People staying engaged, informed, and educated.

So here's the question I've been grappling with for months now. Is escapism irresponsible in 2017?

I've been feeling guilty every time I try to forget the awfulness of the real world by diving into a film or book or TV show. Escaping into fiction is the main reason I became so creative early on in life. That's the power of good art and good stories. But now I'm having my doubts. Am I being irresponsible when I crack a book open and read? Am I being irresponsible when I get drunk and binge watch Kimmy Schmidt? It certainly feels that way, given what's going on in the world.

I know I can't be the only person who feels this. A part of me wants to give it all up in exchange for constant monitoring of the headlines. The world is going to shit and I'm inside watching Cowboy Bebop. For fucks sake, how can I let myself enjoy reading Empire Falls while an Antarctic ice shelf is cracking faster than ever and we're being governed by climate change deniers?

I'm the sort of rabidly stubborn person who gets tunnel vision easily. When I want to accomplish a goal or a certain idea gets stuck in my head, it's hard for me to break away before I've satisfied whatever arbitrary victory conditions my brain has set. Staying informed and staying submerged can help. But it can't solve every problem. As much as I wish I could fix everything through sheer force of will and pigheadedness, I can't.

I've tried. I've done nothing but read the news all day. And I've burned myself out. There's only so much you can take before all the internet headline portents become exhausting. Then, you're not in ANY state to help make the world a better place. Burned out people cannot resist. Burned out people cannot call their representatives, participate in protest marches, or engage in civilized debate with the opposition.

To resist you must be well-rested which means--as difficult as this may be--escaping into a book or movie or TV show or video game. You might feel guilty for doing it. I used to. Then I realized fictional worlds are exactly what we need in 2017. Without fake worlds all we'd have is the real world. And damn, what a rough place to get stuck indefinitely. When we escape into fiction we aren't abandoning the real people and places that need our help. We're taking care of ourselves so we CAN help.

Let me reiterate: you will not be able to save the world if you don't maintain your emotional, mental, and physical health.

The fictional worlds and characters we love only resonate because we have the real world to contrast them with. We escape this plane for a little while, see what's different, and return refreshed with new ideas and opinions. I believe there's an immense amount of truth in the best fiction. As Hemingway said:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after youare finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

Don't feel guilty about enjoying what you've always enjoyed. If you want to binge Westworld, do it. If you want to forget about politics for a while and read about central Maine, do it. Now is not the time to let guilt override our love of fictional escape. It has never been more important.