Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Harry Potter Is Not Escapism

Ha, you like that? I just wrote a flagrantly untrue title. Of COURSE you escape into books like the Harry Potter series. If you didn't, it would be darned hard to read through 4,000 plus pages in seven books. (And, if you've reached my level of geekdom, to do it more than once.) But I just read an article that seemed to imply that escapism was, especially for adult readers, the primary purpose of reading young adult fantasy novels. Here's the offending passage:
Young adult fiction offers a promise to all of us that there is no suffering that's not worth it, no agony that goes unrewarded down the line. If you're a teenager, those promises might be false, but they're a temporary balm. And if you're an adult, too old to believe that the balance of life comes out even, you can suspend your disappointments as long as you're immersed in a story that promises something different.
There is so much disdain hidden within that third sentence. Adult readers of fantasy novels have been beaten down by life, and so need some escape to a world where life is fair, where things "come out even". ARE YOU BLEEPING KIDDING ME? What remotely astute reader could think that Harry Potter's fictional life comes out even? Yes, he wins the battle and goes on to have a family, but he never gets to know his parents, his friends and surrogate family members are picked off one by one, and he has to willingly march to his own death before he can be victorious. His life is profoundly unfair, in a way that would make a mockery of any other person's suffering if he were, you know, real.

We are drawn to Harry Potter's story (and Ender Wiggin's story, and Frodo Baggin's story) not because we're happy to see everything turn out fairly for them, but because we see that the characters choose a path that leads to suffering because they believe following that path is the right thing to do, and then they carry on despite complications, losses, and many moments where they could give up with little shame. Our escape is to believe that, were we presented with a similar choice, we too would take the moral path. But it is not merely escape, it is also instruction, because as we encourage a (probably over-optimistic) belief that we have the will to be righteous, we perhaps give ourselves a slightly better chance to behave with honor when we are presented with our moment.

The best writers of fantasy, then, are both entertainers and moral educators. If we are too quick to dismiss adult readers of young adult fantasy as beaten down drones looking to retreat to a more appealing universe, we ignore the reality that readers are living vicariously through the characters' trials, and promising themselves to imitate the fortitude their literary heroes demonstrate.

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