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Escapism - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
I'll probably eventually go see Rent. My new roommate loves it, and everyone else has seen it, and I feel like I'm missing a lot of pop culture references without having Rent under my belt. But I have to admit, I think of it kind of like, "Oh, all right. I'll eat liver if you absolutely insist on it. I shouldn't just assume that I still dislike it anyway, and it's rude to turn it down." I'm considerably more interested in Friday's Narnia release.

I wrote an entry on escapism awhile back, and I guess this is sort of an extension, but I felt like talking about it some more, because, well, I just can't shut up. It's a failing.

My old roommate moved out very abruptly a couple of months ago, and I had to scramble a lot to make full rent because I wasn't able to find a new one very quickly. If I hadn't found one this month, I'd have had to give up my job and my apartment and move in with my mother in Albuquerque... and no, I'm not exaggerating. It was a good thing I'd been slowly saving for a new computer, because I had some cushion, but the cushion is now gone and it will take some time to re-stock. (Thank heaven, I found a roommate--with a lovely fat cat called Jelly Roll!--so I can actually start doing that.) In terms of "relevance," I can't think of anything that could be more pertinent to my life than a story about people trying to make rent. Heck, when it came out, I was only able to find a part time job and was living with my mother and despairing of ever finding my own place, let alone having health insurance.

But never once have I thought to myself, "Man, I really want to watch a play/see a movie about this! That would be ubercool!"

And as far as living artistically vs. making a living... dude, as I discovered during November, when I was going to spend all of my built up vacation days writing, I write better when I'm actually working and feeling like I have a secure income. Nothing is quite as freezing to creativity as realizing that the rug can be pulled out from under your life at any moment. That's not a sensation that inspires writing. That's a sensation that inspires curling up in the dark and shaking for long periods of time, followed by thin sleep and nightmares. So the whole Bohemian lifestyle thing--and thanks to tinaling for pointing this out about Rent--also doesn't much appeal to me (though I do dig Bohemian clothes). I'm sure-God not going to make any money on the kind of writing I do (if I do, JK Rowling and George Lucas will take it away posthaste!), so I can say I have pure enough motives for doing it--I write it because it's what's in my heart to write--but that doesn't mean that I'm averse in theory to, you know, making money. I think money is good. It's a great big green security blanket, and I want some, okay?

This rambling isn't so much to argue with Rent, but to point out that, as far as being "relevant" goes, I can't think of something that's more up my alley--money problems, artistic integrity. It sounds like it has a little more focus on the characters' sex and recreational lives than I'm interested in, but still. Young urbanite artistic types with money problems, right around my own generation. It should be at the top of my list.

Instead, the film that really makes me want to go to the theater is from a book about a little British girl in the 1940s--probably of at least reasonably solid economic class--who leads her brothers and sisters into a magical world that's accessible through a magical wardrobe in an old country home. The books I enjoy reading are about magic schools or hobbits, and great quests, epic battles between good and evil.

This, according to the literati, makes me a stupid prole.

I suppose if am stupid, then it doesn't really matter what I think, but in my opinion, the problem isn't one side of the divide being smart and the other being stupid, but about a fundamental disagreement about what storytelling is for, and why one seeks a story out. Or even beyond storytelling... art in general.

I think we've got a basic difference between the art-imitates-life group and the art-is-imagination group.

If the measure of art is how well it imitates life--showing all the seedy little corners, maybe illuminating and sometimes ennobling them, then it's a great advance to look at the small matters, like how to make rent when you're poor and trying to stay true to yourself. Since not many people are princesses or witches, then fairy tales and fantasy are inherently suspect, if not automatically lower art forms (which is the more general interpretation). The point of telling the story or taking the picture is to "capture" a moment, to show it as you saw it, to give a voice to your perception of it.

For the other side, the art-is-imagination group, the idea of telling a story is to look beyond what is immediately visible. The further you can see clearly in a fantasy world, the more full of wonders dark and light that it is, the better the story. Now, these stories generally use the tricks of imitation to give a sense of the reality of their worlds. But the point of having those characters be real isn't just to have real characters... it's to provide people who will live the story, to give readers and/or viewers eyes to see through as they experience the world of the imagination. To the reader coming from the art-is-imagination side--including me--going through all the work of creating a lovely character gets fairly frustrating if that character doesn't then do something. Capturing a moment isn't the thing. Creating a milieu is. (Though of course, you then turn around and capture moments within the milieu!) You go into a story looking to escape from the confines of everyday reality, because when you're stuck in the everyday, you... well, by definition, can't get out of it. Art-as-imagination views the world as vast, even limitless, and can't stand the thought of being trapped.


I don't think I have a conclusion.
36 comments or Leave a comment
story645 From: story645 Date: December 8th, 2005 01:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Can I be both people? Cause I like both types of stories, and am particularly fond of HP cause it's art imitates life through a filter of imagination.
darreldoomvomit From: darreldoomvomit Date: December 8th, 2005 03:09 am (UTC) (Link)
excactly. Also, C.S. Lewis was doing jsut that, Jesus's death and ressurection, which as a christian is true, but imagined as if happening in another world. Does that make sense?
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From: marciamarcia Date: December 8th, 2005 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Meh. Wait for Rent on video. I saw the play-version last year after being lambasted with it's praise since I was roughly 16 and....it didn't grab me. Like you, I have a hard time sympathizing with people who refuse to get a job because that would somehow damage their sense of martyrdom art. I found myself kind of rooting for the sell-out villain guy who'd gotten into business and had bought his old loft and wasn't happy that his buddies thought that meant they wouldn't have to pay rent anymore.

And the rampant use of jazz hands didn't help any.

The whole play just comes across as so smug...like it expects to be freakin' you out with it's gritty realism, when it's really about as gritty as "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." If you want to tell a serious story of the streets, musical theatre is not really the best medium. And miraculously bringing your ingenue back from the dead is not really the best plot device.

anais_ninja From: anais_ninja Date: December 8th, 2005 01:42 am (UTC) (Link)
What are you talking about, my friends and I do jazz hands like nobody's business.

I've gotten really sick of people romanticizing acting like a fool instead of a responsible adult this semester because one of my teachers keeps telling us garbage like that. And yes, that would be my art teacher. The only thing that might have tempted me to see "Rent" was the promise that some of those jackasses independently minded young persons die. But they come back you say? Forget that.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: December 8th, 2005 01:36 am (UTC) (Link)
I had a very interesting conversation the other day about why escapist literature is regarded poorly. And the consensus was this: general literature is boring, because we all ive everyday lives. The tropes aren't inherently interesting. So to write good non-genre novels, the writing must be of a very high quality to be successful. Otherwise....boredom. However, in escapist literature it is much easier to be new and different without necessarily being well-written. So there is a lot of not overly good, well-known escapist literature, and the popular perception is that it's all bad. Hence, why whenever a book is sci-fi/fantasy and well-written, reviewers spend a lot of time talking about how it's "revolutionary" or "very different" or somehow not really genre at all. Because if it was, it couldn't be good.


But I completely agree with you; escapist literature more interesting, because it takes you new places.
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: December 8th, 2005 01:50 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, that's the sort of smug, self-congratulatory "literati" thought process which drives me absolutely apesh*t. General literature is boring -- because the people who write it are constructing tiny, self-indulgent, self-aware, semantically clever fabrications and calling them "emotionally raw"....when they're just trite and miniscule and dull.
anais_ninja From: anais_ninja Date: December 8th, 2005 01:54 am (UTC) (Link)
What I really love is how people, literati as you call them, ignore how sci-fi/fantasy can be as, or much more, illuminating about real life than many of their beloved art-imitates-the-crappiest-facet-of-life-I-can-think-of books. I think sci-fi and fantasy can allow writers and readers to address their hopes and fears much more freely than "realistic" settings. When I think of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings etc, I don't see it just as escapism. Good imaginitive literature doesn't just take you out of this world and into a new and exciting one. It reintroduces you to yourself once you get there.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: December 8th, 2005 03:26 am (UTC) (Link)
I was once at a panel of writers and scientists talking about how literature and science interact. When I asked about sci-fi, the scientists snootily informed me that the writers I cited (Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov) were good scientists but bad writers, thus proving sci-fi was not a useful medium for looking at real-life issues.

WTF much?
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: December 8th, 2005 02:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not a huge sci-fi fan (though I loved Mercedes Lackey's "Ship who Searched," etc. back in the day) and my fantasy reading was, for the most part, confined to children's books (Narnia, Edward Eager, Oz), a brief flirtation with the Xanth books in 6th grade (sigh), and, now, Harry Potter. Oh, and Howl's Moving Castle. Loved that. I basically love books that suck me in, and I don't care if they have magic or the future in them. Stereotypical fantasy and sci-fi never did much for me, but I refuse to deny the worthiness of a well-plotted book with good writing and engaging characters.
Escapist books certainly needn't involve impossibilities of time and space, either. Noel Streatfield's Shoes books, Rumer Godden's many children's and YA novels (her adult ones, too), A Little Princess, The Secret Garden—for a little girl growing up in Oregon, desperate to live in a) England and b) a city, those were fantasy, too, even without magic. To Kill a Mockingbird sucked me into another world I'd never seen. As an adult, books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay have floored me and made me almost miss subway stops. I read Dorothy Sayers (and PD James, and Jacqueline Winspear) and don't feel ashamed to love mysteries. I read Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books, and...ok, those are trashy, fine. But a damn good time, and they got me through my first year in NYC, complete with no job and Sept. 11 and general nastiness.
I guess "Escapist," to me, means good writing. I hate a lot of the "best" novels that come out each year, because they feel like they're trying way too hard. If a writer makes it look effortless, and sucks me into whatever world, real or imaginary, they have come up with, I appreciate the chance to stop thinking about bills and rent and whether I'll get promoted and how we’ll pay for the wedding.
I don't have a conclusion, either, except Up With Escapism!
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 8th, 2005 02:51 am (UTC) (Link)
The thing is, there's so much of great literature that's just what the literati call escapist. I mean -

Throw together ghosts, swordfights, pirates, murder, proving who did the murder - and you have Hamlet.

Write about adventure, traveling, aliens, more aliens, a sexy enchantress, aliens who want to eat the main character, a sexy goddess, true love, and a dea ex machina ending - and you have the Odyssey (because the cyclops, lotus eaters, sirens, and all the rest were so aliens to Homer's audience and would have been from Mars or Venus if he'd been writing a few centuries later).

In fact, what percentage of great works don't count as escapist? How small is it? I just don't buy this argument that true literature has to be about something mind numbingly boring because only then can we see if the writing is so good that you can get through it without the snooze alarm.

Why don't they just admit that what they like isn't the same as what other people like? There are books that just don't grab me - and probably never will grab me - that other people love, and vice versa. Granted, there are a few where I do get snotty and wonder how anyone with a few functional brain cells could like them (ever been trapped in the same room with a three year old who wants to have her Dora the Explorer book read to her again and again?).

But, as a general rule, I just admit that it doesn't grab me and try to get on with my life without telling them they have a problem for liking that stuff and not liking my stuff.

lauraflute From: lauraflute Date: December 8th, 2005 02:55 am (UTC) (Link)
If you want a story about people struggling to make rent, read my journal. ;)
gentlespirit From: gentlespirit Date: December 8th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I love both.

I would say to see Rent if you want to, but not because you feel that you ought to. I’ve long been a fan of the play and am happy that there is now a version that people who can not make it to NYC or a tour stop can have access to. To me, Rent is less about the issues you mentioned as it is a show about connection. It’s title was chosen not just for what one pays each month for an apartment, but also the alternate meaning: “a breach of relations between persons or groups; a rift.” It’s about growing up, it’s about the choices that people make and how it affects their relationships with others, it’s about the things that bind us to other people and common experiences--and the ways in which they get torn apart. It is a far from perfect show, and the film has parts that make me laugh (inappropriately) but it is a show that has heart. It’s about finding or making a place where you belong, to quote it, it’s about “being and ‘us’ for once, instead of a ‘them.’”

And I could go on for just as long about why I love The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But I will spare you and say that I really enjoyed your essay on escapism. (And not just because I like excuses to use this icon.)
From: isabela113 Date: December 8th, 2005 03:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I think what made Rent such a phenomenon, and what undermines the current film, is that it does, as you say "capture a moment" while retaining a level of fantasy. It is a love letter to a real time and place- the East Village in the early nineties, told through the filter of grand opera. (Being based on Puccini's La Boheme, as it is.) The musical has a nice mix of both, erring on the side of fantasy. But, it captures the spirit of the real thing so well that it charms you into forgiving the artistic and narrative missteps. I think what I am getting at is that the pieces that we fall in love with, be they books, movies or whatever, are the things that fulfill our cravings for both. (And may I humbly suggest that if movies up there are as expensive as they are here, I'd wait for Rent to come out on DVD.)
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 8th, 2005 04:07 am (UTC) (Link)
:mumbles into hand:

I don't think realism is worthless (in fact, I think the techniques of realism have added a lot to art-as-imagination by making the imaginary landscape more solid and vivid) or that quests can't be done in a realistic setting. For me, they just have to work a lot harder to make me interested enough to poke my nose inside and have a look. Some of the stuff can be excellent. I normally wouldn't bother with a biopic, but I liked Shattered Glass a lot because it really dealt with the questions involved in the issue.

And good point about it being an escape for your average well-off Broadway patron. I get a snicker when they call it realistic, as it's pretty far from what's real for them!
soonest_mended From: soonest_mended Date: December 8th, 2005 05:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Word for serious.

My roomie has been playing the Rent soundtrack for days, leaving me with th impression of, well, recitative from a slash opera, except with atonal guitar riffs. Gritty realism is good and all, but nuuu... musicals just don't put enough grit in for me.

If you want a perfect balance of 'escapism' and 'grit', go grab you some Orson Scott Card. The man's every bit as much a genius as Asimov (the Ender's Game series predates quantum mechanics by several years, but the philotic particles act as quanta, and... well, I won't get into all that here) and his writing is seamlessly, grippingly brilliant. His fantasy books are eye-opening and staggeringly real, and his science fiction springs from foundations of scientific speculation to fascinating and sometimes devastating plots. I have yet to hear anyone say they finished the series and went 'meh'.

And that's besides Narnia. Because, come on, it's Narnia. True, it's appallingly short on transvestites and tragic diseases and thank God for it, too, but listen here, folks, when our man comes back to life, he comes BACK.

Besides, if the goal of literature is to keep us tightly reined into the events, experiences and phenomena directly around us, and away from flights of speculation and imagination--

what's the point?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 8th, 2005 06:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I love Ender's Game. I haven't been as crazy about the Shadow series, but EG is one of my all time favorite books, and I like Speaker as well. And for disturbing fantasies, nothing is as disturbing as Hart's Hope. Nothing.
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kelleypen From: kelleypen Date: December 8th, 2005 06:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm with you. I'm excited about Narnia--I might rent Rent when it comes out on DVD.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: December 8th, 2005 12:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I find it interesting that you consider this to be such a division, because one of the things I really like about your fanfic is how well it represents something very much like real life--I totally relate to a lot of what your Tonks is going through, despite not having a hot older commitmentphobic werewolf boyfriend--in a fantastic, good vs. evil setting. So it really oughtn't to be as difficult to blend them as you seem to think.

Re: Rent, though, I think you should know that it is really anything but realistic and gritty. It's essentially a fantasy of early-'90s urban bohemian life, very much in the tradition of La Boheme's Mimi being able to sing lungbusting arias full of high C's while she's DYING OF TUBERCULOSIS. It's very non-plot-intensive, and isn't "about" any of the realistic issues you mentioned so much as the nature of tight-knit friendship and group dynamics and how they respond to depression and stress and tragedy. With fun music and pretty costumes (yes, these are the prettiest poor people EVER).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 8th, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that realism has given fantasists a lot of really good tools for making fantasy worlds more vivid and intense, more solid, and I'm grateful to it for that. I don't actually think it's an unbridgeable divide, and actually, I kind of think that most people on the art-is-imagination side don't. I'm not wild about stories that take place on the streets I can look out my window and see, but the techniques they use to capture that are wonderful and I'm more than happy to use them. It's a lot more often that you get people in the art-as-imitation camp sniffing disdainfully that fantasy and sf are "irrelevant," which hacks me off enough to go on occasional tears about their preferences, just for spite. ;)

I suppose I think of Rent the same way I think of books by Zane--annoyed that people are treating it like it "keeps it real." (I also have to admit, AIDS plots, like consumption/tuberculosis plots, just don't appeal to me much. Set something during the Black Plague, I might find the disease storyline interesting.)
rikibeth From: rikibeth Date: December 9th, 2005 01:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I felt the same way about Reality Bites that you do about Rent.

What got me hooked on it was the music more than the subject matter. Most of it is very catchy, and for me there was the bonus of a love duet for two male voices, which I've swiped for TWO slashtastic soundtracks so far.

I know, I know, you're not about the slash. But for me it was a draw.
brinkofacomplex From: brinkofacomplex Date: December 20th, 2005 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Woah, your LJ is popular. Top 10 on a Google "escapist literature" search.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that this Phantom Librarian was a fellow LJ whore.
Anyway, interesting thoughts.
I'm not going to pretend I read all those comments above this... But I saw RENT, and I liked it. The bohemia thing is stupid in an anarchy t-shirt sort of way, and the plot was a little thin, but the songs were catchy. I felt like I might have wasted my money, but not my time. Just rent RENT when it comes out. ^_^
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