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So What’s Wrong With Escapist Entertainment?

October 1, 2012 by Kiersi

Today I have a guest post by the talented and funny Helen W. Mallon. Click here for my guest post, “Why So Sad? Where ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Literature’ Meet.”


Many thanks to Kiersi Burkhart for inviting me as a guest on her blog!  At her suggestion, I percolated thoughts about “literary” writing vs. “entertainment.”

So What’s Wrong With Escapist Entertainment?

Photo credit Called to Communion

“I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

–J.R.R. Tolkein

On Thursday night I watch myself watching The X Factor.  It felt like, um, viewing a circus side show. A 13-year-old fainter (Cue 911!) is revived to (predictably) give a knockout performance. A morbidly obese guy is hauled in his wheelchair onto the stage by a crowd of Backstage Guys (Instant Replay!). The guy explains how he weighs 400 pounds less than he used to, then he sings like an angel.  The audience is (predictably) shocked and (predictably) hooked.  I am mortified, feel vaguely unwashed, and, yes, hooked.  Simon Cowell (refreshingly) (yet predictably) asks the scary-cute 12-year-old in the macabre Britney outfit not to sing the song he most hates: “Tomorrow.” She (of course) does.  A cute-as-a-bug 16-year old boy dedicates a song to his girl-friend: Cut to Simon (refreshingly/predictably) rolling his eyes.

The X Factor packagers (Hi, Simon) carefully film, chop, edit, and boil the whole shebang down to 50 minutes of precision-engineered emotional hooks.  It’s designed so there’s one emotion conditioned by each moment of packaged hard luck or cuteness.

Well, actually, X Factor offers two emotional options.

Simon Cowell is a genius at manipulation. Part of the audience thinks that Macabre Britney is adorable. He’s not there for them. He’s there for the cynics, and every time he rolls his eyes or says something gruff, we think our emotional autonomy is being validated.

And, yeah, we keep watching. Because Simon Cowell has convinced us we aren’t being manipulated. Escapist? Hell, yes. But it’s not Tolkein’s escapism. The difference is in the degree of emotional air the artist/producer grants the audience.

Fact is, I love trashy TV. I love People Magazine and gossip and Glee. People who dislike shows like X Factor because they aren’t “edifying” make me itch. X Factor’s real problem isn’t that it’s “escapist.” Life needs escaping sometimes. In fact, if life weren’t so hard, the manipulative bad taste of shows like X Factor would be all the art we need.

Photo credit sharetv.org

But since we live in the world we do, let’s escape into complex books and movies and TV, work that enables us to feel emotions we didn’t know existed. Then, when we’re exhausted from all that depth-plumbing, the X Factor beckons. Join me on Thursday night? Let’s Tweet about it.

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory.” –J.R.R. Tolkein

“My attitude is, if someone’s going to criticize me, tell me to my face.”  –Simon Cowell

(I’d send him a copy of this post but I doubt he’d read it.)


For ripping entertainment that probes deep psychological complexity, check out my newly-released short story, Casual Day at the Crazy House.

Dad’s living in the bathroom and will the shrink make house calls and does Sarah really have to be falling for the shrink’s niece…?

Casual Day at the Crazy House by Helen W. Mallon


17 Comments »

  1. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapist entertainment every once in a while.

  2. Quanie Mitchell says:

    If we all wrote “lit-tra-ture” the world would be a very boring place!

  3. Thanks for the responses, Kelly and Quanie! I admit I’m a bit skewed. I think Hamlet is almost as delish as the X-Factor. (talk about a side show!)

  4. I too enjoy escapist entertainment, and for those of us who aspire to write “lit-tra-ture,” i think it’s important, because it is a part of life, of what makes us human, to be drawn to these kinds of things. Shakespeare was writing for the masses as much as the literate, and he certainly included the slapstick and the horrific and pathetic and romantic elements, the things that tugged at our emotional heartstrings, and shocked and disgusted us, but kept us (readers/viewers) coming back for more.

    I have two books I’m working on, the Games of Thrones series (I’m on second book) and Bel Canto Highly acclaimed literary work). I’ve zipped through two of the entertainment series in the same time I’ve slogged through two chapters of Bel Canto, and frankly, not sure I’m going to try to finish. It just isn’t compelling, it doesn’t make me want to keeping turning pages to find out what happens next, no character has grabbed me to make me root for him or her or care about what happens to them, and the language isn’t of the quality that would make me want to continue reading just to hear more of that voice or to see more through that prism of insight or understanding.

    With Games, I do care abou the characters and want to know what is happening next, and there’s more insight into the human condition than I’ve found in Bel so far, and the language is rich and interesting, as much so as Bel.

    So yes, the difference between escapist literature and literary fiction can become quite blurred.

    • Kiersi says:

      It’s so true. Shakespeare was a rather pulp writer in his day, wasn’t he? And you’re right about Game of Thrones! I sometimes consider “depressing” to be a quality of “literary” literature and Martin certainly meets that standard. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. M. Ziegler says:

    Oh dear. If I couldn’t escape I would be a very scary woman. Maybe that’s what is wrong with the world, not enough escape and too many people taking EVERYTHING too serious.

  6. I love all the responses! Deborah, I haven’t read “Thrones,” But I loved loved loved Bel Canto. To me, it was greatly entertaining–take a group of highbrow hostages, throw in some serious opera, and have them begin to feel an emotional connection to their captors, and make sure everyone could potentially die. It’s been years since I read it, but I did feel a real connection to the characters.

    It’s important to recognize the place of personal taste and opinion in all this. It would be sort of silly to define literary fiction as “boring” or anything else that implies a moral judgment. I go with broad categories about emphasis on plot as opposed to characterization and language. As for me, I’m a literary writer whose publisher produces mainly romance/horror, etc., and I don’t really fit in, but I’m glad they took me in out of the cold!

  7. Thank you! I don’t feel so bad for watching Real Housewives of New Jersey anymore! I actually read somewhere recently that spending time in a “familiar, fictional world” (hence TV, or contrary to the fictional aspect, reality TV) helps with stress and can “recharge” the brain, since we can basically go on autopilot while watching. It is no crime to indulge a little after a hard day’s work. Great concept. Great post.

    • Katherine, Thanks so much. EVERY time I go to the doctor, I take a book or some work with me, and I end up with my nose in People Magazine. NOT a familiar, fictional world. I really think that’s a good point, though–it’s comforting to watch or read something that’s almost, but not quite, us. Especially if the drama is over the top! Makes our drama feel more manageable.

  8. beverlydiehl says:

    I do like to escape, and had a fondness for America’s Got Talent, once upon-a, but lately, all my escape is the small screen (‘puter & Kindle) and between the pages of a book.

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