I read a Forbes article recently heralding the benefits of romance novels during stressful times, saying they “provide the distraction and balm people crave when the world seems to be falling apart” and “offer diversion, excitement and escapism.”
To which someone on social media said (and I’m toning things down a bit here), “This is exactly the problem. Escapism isn’t a healthy way to deal with anything, much less a pandemic. Romance novels have always been guilty of this, and now isn’t the time to start saying it’s a good thing.”
While I can sort of see the commenter’s point, I think there are two important questions to ask before you can sort reading romance novels—or books of any kind—as helping or hurting during difficult times.
Important Question 1: What are you escaping?
This one’s pretty straightforward. Are your children running starving and ragged in the streets like Dickensonian urchins while you lounge about, entombed in your library for days on end?
That is not good. Reading (or doing any activity in a compulsive way) to avoid responsibility is bad. Check.
Okay, so that’s clearly not something most of us have to deal with. On a deeper level, though, if you’re so desperate to escape reality that you turn to books as the primary way of meeting emotional needs, this is also not good.
In other words, if you have a “book boyfriend” you love more than real people in your life, if you regularly put off processing problems by burying yourself in novels, if you long so much for fictional happy endings that you have no interest in dealing with your own life story and its ups and downs…that’s also not healthy.
But…that is also not where most readers are right now. Choose some random people waiting in a library curbside pickup line and ask about what escapism through books means, and they’ll say things like:
- “I love journeying to a totally different time period, culture, or country through books, especially when I can’t travel in real life. Sure, I’m learning, but it also makes that history or those places come alive to me.”
- “I like being able to sigh along as characters find romance, knowing it’s not my life and love at stake. I get all the fun conflict and drama without actually having to deal with any fallout. And it helps to know things will work out in the end.”
- “It’s good to have something that makes me laugh. I know not everything resolves neatly in the nonfictional world, but wow, in hard times, it sure helps to plop down with a book for a while and smile again.”
- “Daily life isn’t usually that exciting, so sometimes when I read a thriller or an epic fantasy novel, it makes me want to be braver. Or at least lets me cheer when good triumphs over evil. It’s a quick look at how justice should work, even if it doesn’t always.”
(Okay, so maybe not everyone at the library would be ready with a snappy answer like this on the spot, but they would think of these responses on the drive home and wish they’d said them. Trust me.)
You can disagree if you like, but to me, those seem like pretty good things. Especially when you consider…
Important Question 2: What changes when you “return” from your escape?
It’s a classic “quest” arc: the character is forced to leave the comfort of home and routine to accomplish something great. And after many obstacles, they (usually) triumph and return again. In the best stories, they come back changed in some way. They have new perspectives. They’ve gained allies or found true love. They’ve defeated a lie that’s dogged them their whole life. They now know something true that will impact all of their choices from here on out.
So think of yourself as a character going through a journey when you read a book. Sure, you’re not actually experiencing the action (usually a good thing, given that the number of gunfights, drama, dangerous secrets, ticking time bombs, etc. are usually way higher in fiction than real life), but you’re leaving your normal world on an adventure. And, if the author’s done the job well, you should leave it changed.
It’s not usually a dramatic change, although many of us can name a handful of books that triggered a transformation. Maybe you come away from a novel understanding others better, mulling over a theme or profound line, or filled with less stress and more laughter.
Some kinds of escapism—hello, binge-eating tubs of Chunky Monkey ice cream—leave you changed in a negative way. And hey, if novels (or certain kinds of novels) give you nightmares or unrealistic expectations or an excuse to consistently neglect real-life responsibilities…then avoid them. Read responsibly.
But most of the time, for most of us, reading leaves us changed in a positive way. When we close a book, we’re equipped with extra mental, emotional, or spiritual resources to live our own lives as more thoughtful, relaxed, or compassionate people.
So if you’re feeling stressed, there are lots of things you can do to help, and we could all make different lists of what we find most helpful or productive—but I hope reading books is on yours.
What do you think, readers? Do you think there’s such a thing as “good” and “bad” escapism? Why do you read, especially fiction, during stressful times?