It's a tricky term, escapism, in that it's never been clear to me what exactly is meant by it. What part of the reading experience constitutes the escape? If it's the act of immersing oneself in the lives of nonexistent people, developing emotional reactions to situations that never occurred, then all fiction is an escape. Anna Karenina is no more real than Harry Potter, and becoming emotionally involved with either one is, to take a strict and joyless approach, a waste of mental energy.
The 'escapist' label, however, is usually attached to the fantastic, the adventurous, and the wildly popular. The theory seems to be that when they read books like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code, readers imagine themselves in the place of the main characters, possessing remarkable powers and having grand adventures. When they read realistic fiction like Atonement or Snow, on the other hand, readers are faced with a facet of life which they can apply to their own existence, thus forcing them to examine their real lives rather than imagine them away.
Implicit in this definition is the assumption that fiction that is fun, adventurous, and that ends happily is somehow completely unrelated to the real world. It's the same attitude that gets writers of literary love stories like Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Cold Mountain to tear their lovers apart a few pages before the end of the book, lest they be tagged as romance writers--because, of course, in real life star-crossed lovers never end up marrying and living happily together.
When examined closely, the separation between realistic and non-realistic fiction seems arbitrary and artificial. Why is Atonement, for example, a realistic novel? Its premise is just this side of absurd, albeit not impossible, and it is only through the strength of McEwan's prose that we accept it. Some might say that the realism comes from the characters, who are thoroughly believable, but then why apply the escapist label to science fiction or fantasy novels with believable characters, as so often happens?
There is something false about the setting and premise of every novel, for the simple reason that life is rarely obliging enough to provide us with a plot. In real life, a traumatic event from our childhood may never come back to haunt our comfortable old age. A person with a fundamental flaw in their character may discover that the tragedies of their life have nothing to do with that flaw. Mysteries and questions that dog us throughout our existence may have no resolution, or a deeply unsatisfying one. Coincidences might not mean anything. Long-kept secrets may remain that way.
For all the talk about how fantastic fiction can encourage dangerously unrealistic expectations from its readers, it occurs to me that realistic fiction offers a more dangerous and seductive fantasy. After all, by a relatively early age most of us become resigned to the fact that we don't have special powers, that we're not the princes of a foreign land, whisked away in order to protect us from an ancestral enemy, that a talking animal isn't going to show up and lead us into an adventure. It takes a lot longer, however, to accept that our lives have no plot, that they are simply a sequence of events with no coherent narrative or conclusion. The impulse to tell stories, to transform our lives and the lives of others into stories, is powerful and ancient, and all novels are, in a way, an escape into a world in which human lives can truly and accurately be translated into narratives.
The closest thing to a compelling argument for the 'escapist' label is the notion that some books, by reflecting an aspect of real life, can teach their readers valuable lessons. This argument assumes, however, that the purpose of fiction is to improve, to teach, to provide useful tools for the real world. To make such an argument is to smother art in its sleep. Art shouldn't have a purpose beyond its own existence. No work of fiction written to further an agenda or educate its audience can ever hope to overcome those ulterior motives, and achieve the status of true art.
This argument also brings us to the inherent hypocrisy of the 'escapist' label, in that there are many highly respected and critically acclaimed novels that have no improving qualities to speak of. What, for instance, does one learn from To the Lighthouse, apart from a fervent admiration for Virginia Woolf's eye and voice (by no means an unworthy lesson)?
If one work of fiction is escapist, then all of them are, and we should ask ourselves if this is such a bad thing. Those who toss the 'escapist' label around unthinkingly, who use it as a catch-all insult to indicate a work that they find insignificant and unimportant, might do well to remember that there are times in life in which escape is not only harmless, but necessary. Snobbish reviewers tell us that we use fantastic fiction to escape the doldrums of our mundane life, but what about readers who use books to escape poverty, misery, sickness, war, and hopelessness? Isn't the ability to whisk an unhappy person, even for a few short hours, away from the source of their sadness, a blessed sort of magic? Shouldn't it be encouraged, one of the highest compliments a piece of art could be paid? Or, in the words of Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:
Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history--his home--the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. ... The escape from reality was, he felt--especially right after the war--a worthy challenge. He would remember fondly for the rest of his life a peaceful half hour spent reading a copy of Betty and Veronica that he had found in a service-station rest room: lying down with it under a fir tree, in sun-slanting forest outside of Medford, Oregon, wholly absorbed into that primary-colored world of bad gags, heavy ink lines, Shakepearean farce, and the deep, almost Oriental mystery of the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship. The pain of his loss--though he would never have spoken of it in these terms--was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum. For that half hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. ... It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world--the reality--that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.