Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The absurdist paradox

What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape? Jailers.
One of the problems or escapist fiction (or "genre" as it is often called) is how to approach it.  By definition, escapist fiction is, well, escapist.  Its purpose isn't to deal with the fears and foibles of everyday life nor the horrors and joys of the human condition that every one of us experiences solely by virtue of being alive.  Escapist fiction deals in the exotic, the fanciful, the larger than life.  Its purpose is to take the reader out of himself for a few hours as a sort of intellectual holiday.  Even stories that seem "serious" and deal with things like nuclear war or overpopulation draw their appeal mainly from the fact these problems, though potentially serious, rarely make up the days of most people's lives.

Science fiction, horror, espionage, romance, fantasy; there are many examples of escapist literature.  It's such a broad category that it often includes stories that aren't escapist simply because they get scooped up along with other members of their shared genre.   But as a writer, how should one treat escapist fare?  Should it be handled like the absurd exotica that it is or should it be treated with a sort of solemn respect that one normally reserves for Dickens?  The answer is, both and neither.

The most notorious attempt to make escapist fiction palatable to the public was the 1960s television adaptation of Batman.  At that time, the superhero genre was at something of an ebb and the Caped Crusader's was even worse off.  In fact, his magazines were on the verge of cancellation.  20th Century Fox Television's answer was to go for flat-out camp; play it for laughs, but pitch the jokes at such an arch level that they would sail over the heads of young children, who would treat the episodes like proper adventures.  Batman was an astounding success and sparked a craze that quickly became known as "batmania".  The series produced so much buzz that for the next thirty years there wasn't a single superhero television or film series that didn't have a heavy dollop of camp mixed in.  Not surprisingly, few of these were very successful–and that was always in spite of the camp and not because of it.  Perhaps the imitators of Batman's success should have noticed that even the creators of the series knew that the joke would wear thin very fast and that Batman only lasted two seasons before the magic started to fade and saw the Dynamic Duo swinging off into syndication in 1968

The other extreme is with the later incarnations of Star Trek (Sorry to be relying so much on television, but they're the easiest writing examples that don't require explanation).  In this case, the producers took the content seriously.  Very seriously.  So serious, in fact, that it wasn't long before people were being upbraided for making crude remarks about Klingons.  About Klingons?  They're a fictional species.  Who is going to be offended no matter what you say about them?  Far from removing the element of absurdity from the escapism, they actually ended up heightening it.  It was rather as if someone watched You Only Live Twice and went away from the cinema fretting about the geopolitical implications of SPECTRE.

No, the way to handle escapism is by balancing the need for suspension of disbelief against the inherent absurdity of the category.  Space opera, bondesque espionage, wizards, vampires, superheroes; these are all absurd.  If you took them seriously for two seconds they'd all fall apart like a sugar angel in a rain storm.  They do, however, have their own internal logic.  The trick is to understand that logic and play to it on it's own terms.  Take it seriously, but only on those terms.  Don't take it so seriously that you start to conflate the fantasy logic of Superman with the real logic of the real world.  In that way, the Man of Steel comes across as ludicrous.

In other words, the way to handle escapism is to treat your subject as serious based on the fantasy world it exists in, but remaining completely aware of how absurd it is so that the seriousness never gets out of hand.

For to do otherwise lies either camp or geekdom.

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