Novelist and poet Rod Duncan’s started a journey to find out why people are drawn to stories. The initial answer is escapism. Rod’s sceptical and so am I. At first glance, escapism is seductive: sink into a romance rather than face the kitchen sink, replace a murder victim with a murderous boss, lose yourself in a wealth of historic detail, let the twists and turns of a police procedural win over mundane office routines. But is it really escapism?
Escapism suggests a luxury of time in which to be distracted from reality and conjures up images of holiday brochures, glossy fashion magazines or biographies of the rich and famous. Things to flick through when bored. To seriously pay attention to a story requires motivation to read or hear it.
Escapism feels like a scam: it’s too easy and I hear an alarm bell of doubt, albeit a very faint one. Storytelling has literally been around since Jesus (and before) and he didn’t use them for escapism. He used them to make sense of a spiritual or moral truth. Listeners were expected to respond to the narrative, reflect it back to their own lives and make sense of them.
I suspect that’s the real seduction of a story. They provide us with a narrative to make sense of our own lives. Even a formulaic thriller-by-numbers or fluffy romance can be held like a mirror to reflect into our lives. We take pride in solving the mystery before the detective, in spotting the twist that will finally being hero and heroine together, even in developing fanfic because the characters in the original struck such a strong chord with ourselves. It’s always easier to solve someone else’s problems, and less risky when they’re not real, but, in doing so, we open ourselves to a narrative that might help us solve our own.
Following a narrator through their romances, problems and screaming at them for making bad decisions (with the comfort that we wouldn’t have done that), is the closest we’re ever going to get to walking in someone else’s shoes. If we can lose ourselves in someone else’s viewpoint, we stand a greater chance of understanding how others behave in the way they do, even if it seems inexplicable to us. That’s the real escapism: chance to be someone else and use their story to make sense of ours.