Escapism? Fleeing Reality to Survive
Many moons ago I had this buddy.
This buddy wrote a book featuring an angsty, Holden Caufield-esque protagonist who railed against all sorts of things, from great injustices to minor nuisances. One of the things that pissed this character off was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle. He said something like, He writes impossibly escapist bullshit in which good is too good and evil is too evil.
Escapist fantasy has been pissing off writers for a long time now. I recently ran across this old chestnut by Robert Bloch, firing off a missive to the editor of Weird Tales, telling him he’d had enough of Robert E. Howard and his damnable Conan:
“‘I am awfully tired of poor old Conan the Cluck, who for the past fifteen issues has every month slain a new wizard, tackled a new monster, come to a violent sudden end that was averted (incredibly enough!) in just the nick of time, and won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration... I cry: ‘Enough of this brute and his iron-thewed sword-thrusts-may he be sent to Valhalla to cut out paper dolls.’”
It's a nice takedown, curmudgeonly enough for the reader to perhaps experience a bit of surprise when they learn the author of said-letter was actually about a decade younger than the man-child he was attacking.
Is it such a bad thing to want to escape when you write, though? And is this evasion of the pain and pathos of “serious fiction” somehow a shirking of the writer’s innate duty?
Writing itself is probably a shirking of one’s duty, especially if that duty is to earn a living and be a productive member of society.
And I have a hard time begrudging anyone their flight from pain, even if the retreat that helps them in the short term hurts them in the long run.
Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, obviously had demons, and was tortured enough by the death of his mother to take his own life shortly after she expired. But I don’t think tying a bedspread around his chest with a clothespin and pretending it was cape hurt him all that much. And Conan the Cimmerian won Howard a minor fame during his lifetime, and also paid his bills, which is the sine qua non of adulthood.
There’s a movie about Howard’s abortive relationship with small-town schoolteacher Novalyne Price (played by Renee Zellweger) that addresses his arrested development and flight from the adult world.
The movie’s only a cut or two above the standard made-for-TV fare. Most of it shows us Novalyne and Howard strolling side-by-side (rarely hand-in-hand) discussing themes both weighty and inconsequential as the sere brown expanse of Cross Plains, Texas passes behind them.
The movie (based on the book by Price, One who walked Alone) suggests that Novalyne was unsuccessful in her attempts to wean Howard away from his Oedipal dependence on Mama. Neither could she steer him away from his one-man cosplay adventures through town, or trick him into donning a more appropriate costume, like, say a groom’s black tie.
Not all of the futile efforts were expended by Novalyne, however. Howard tried in vain to wean Ms. Price away from her gig as schoolteacher, toward the Dark Side where she might try her hand at the disreputable but more spiritually rewarding job of writer.
Alas, Ms. Price wrote nothing after giving the world her account of her brief, less-than-torrid encounter with the quixotic, small-town scribe. And she has since died.
I’m frankly not sure here, though, whether Howard needed to be weaned away from Conan, even if it might have saved his life (and I doubt it would have).
Besides which I don’t think that escapism is truly possible, or that a writer can shirk their duty to the truth (assuming they have one) even if they try.
And not everyone who retreats into fantasy eventually puts a bullet in their head.
And who knows? Maybe Bloch was just pissed that Conan kept getting the covers over at Weird Tales.