The proponents of literature as escapism find passion in their cause: "I deal with heavy issues all day in work/family/the news, so why would I want anything heavy when I read?" Science fiction writers by trade deal in the world of ideas, the world of what-if, and, as such, often tend to dismiss escapists as lightweights. But it isn't just science fiction (and, of course, literary fiction) shunned by the escapists; their wrath is often turned toward horror, crime fiction, historical fiction, urban fantasy ... you name it. As someone invested in the reading habits of anyone with a library card, a credit card, or an account on Amazon, the question proposed by my straw man (or straw women, or straw artificial intelligence) seemed pressing enough to blog around the issue in the general direction of an answer.
Consider first the merits of the question. To whom might escapism be of benefit? I have heard it argued by those with a background in child psychology that escapist literature often proves useful in helping abused children to cope. It may be a temporary relief from the horrors of existence, allowing the subconscious mind to process the trauma while the conscious is happy. It may be baby steps toward understanding and dealing with conflict in real life, for even light fantasy literature has conflict between characters with different goals. I don't know, but those who do seem to value it.
Could distraction itself be of benefit to some? If a cheesy novel helps those, like social workers, who deal professionally with the pain of others, to disengage and return the next day to work ready to deal with the tough problems again, surely it has fewer disadvantages than, say, cigarette smoking.
And what's wrong with pure fun? Some enjoy sports, some work on a collection or a hobby, some putter in a flower garden. Certainly reading fluffy literature is of no more harm than any of these. And just as social. The latest exploits of a romantic hero (or heroine) are certainly shared in person and online between fans of an author of Walmart discount aisle fiction.
"But, but, but... " the fan of more serious fiction argues, "the fluffy stuff has none of the benefits of good books." It is well established that reading about characters different from oneself increases empathy for others. In a world that sometimes seems saturated with hate and violence, surely empathy is a good thing. And, while Edward Said's argument that the only way to transcend Orientalism is to actually meet and interact with those of other cultures, few of us have the resources or time to experience as many cultures as can be experienced through reading. Not to denigrate extended periods of time living within another culture, working, studying, absorbing--such experiences obviously broaden perspectives, increase empathy, and decrease absolutism--but what percentage of Americans really do this? The cruise that stops in a port long enough for you to see "poor natives" and still get back on the ship in time for the early dinner sitting or the "whistle stop" tour (It's Tuesday, so it must be Belgium) are more typical. And even for those who do spend extended periods engaging a culture different from their own, few are willing to supplement it with the academic study required to understand why societies differ and what one might learn from another.
Fiction is a shortcut.
And while I may not learn as much, mind you, about inner city gang life by reading Richard Wright's Black Boy as I would by joining a gang and running with them for a while, I don't think I'd qualify for membership (nor would I want to). I can taste what it's like to be a Buddhist monk, or a soldier deployed in a war zone, or lawyer trying a case at the Hague, or a doctor on the front lines of dealing with a new infectious disease, or an astronaut working on the International Space Station, or a home health care aide dealing with a disabled patient within a few months of reading, but no human being on the planet can have direct experience with all of these things. And fiction beats nonfiction for getting inside a character's head and for that character remaining inside one's head, as the fiction author intentionally guides one to that end. Because then you'll buy his/her next book.
Additionally, challenging books keep the mind working. For an elderly person, reading difficult literature must be better than reading fluff (which, in turn, must be better than not reading) to stave off dementia diseases. If true for the elderly, certainly mind exercises have benefits for the rest of us, even if not as obvious.
Okay, so these benefits are not experienced, but that doesn't imply fluff is harmful. If the alternative is no reading of fiction at all, it doesn't harm the aficionados of serious literature if fluff is consumed by others. Does it?
There's much evidence about the "echo chamber" of TV talk show/social media reinforcing already held views and increasing divisiveness in American society. If your taste in literature is fluffy books about people like you, are you even less likely to bridge social gaps than those who do no reading at all? Certainly, if those people spend the time not reading out-and-about in society, they may encounter those not like them, at least some of the time. Is a veteran who likes reading books about war and the military and who interacts in online forums with those who like to talk about weapons less likely, merely due to the amount of time in the day, to encounter a Quaker, religiously opposed to all war, and to try to understand them, questioning strongly held beliefs, and to perhaps play a positive role in healing some of society's wounds? And what about those of the upper crust who never even meet anyone who has served in the military--if they spend their time reading regency romances, exclusively, are they likely ever to sympathize with the plight of the soldier whose home was foreclosed upon during an extended deployment? Yeah, yeah, sure, if the goal is to meet just that one type of person, broad reading is not the most efficient way to do it, but if the goal is to increase empathy for many types of people, then the reading as quicker than getting to know everyone argument holds some merit.
There is only so much time in the day. An hour spent reading fluff is an hour not spent reading more challenging literature and also an hour not spent directly engaging with those different from oneself. But if it's only an hour?
Rather than be tricked into a duel with poisoned swords (Oh, who am I kidding? Any opinion I express will drag the Laertes's among you back from France to attend the funeral procession of someone, or more likely, some idea), I'll land firmly in the middle of the debate: escapism is harmful only if it crowds out more serious reading. Enjoy your candy, but then get back to the meal. If I have to live in the same country as you do, I'd prefer the version of you open to challenge, willing to walk in another's shoes, and willing to change.
And if I didn't think that was possible, I wouldn't be writing. For me, there would be no point.
But I'm tired tonight, not up to any more serious thought. Pass the popcorn, I'm going to go talk to a ghost. All will be fine in the state of Denmark.