“It’s escapism” someone said in a comment online when speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Escapism has become an excuse for bad writing, and it needs to stop. All fiction is a form of escapism to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the story in question. It does not do to use the same words to describe writers like Gabaldon, Stephenie Meyer or, even worse, E.L. James. While Outlander is not to be placed on the lower shelves with Meyer and James, it is not much farther up. The faults: Claire Fraser/Randall/Beauchamp, the persistence of rape, and the steer length of the thing.
Precisely because of writers like the aforementioned Meyer, James and Gabaldon, did I for a long time dislike the first person narrative point of view. It was not until reading some Margaret Atwood, and my beloved Jane Eyre, that I came to realize that it was the writer and not the point of view that I had problems with. And characterization, we cannot forget that. James’s Ana has – as Stepehn King so succinctly said – two states: “Oh God” and “Oh My.” Bella Swan is some desperate wannabe who latches onto Edward and then spend an entire series making anyone not a teenage girl want to strange her. Gabaldon’s Claire is on the desperate, clingy girl that Bella is. Her fault lies in flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. She is a nurse and capable of more than Bella or Ana but she, too, has two speeds: pissed off or recovering from being captured. Picture: she’s just come through a magical time traveling rock, has almost been raped by her husband’s ancestor, and then she throws a fit because someone isn’t being treated correctly. One would think she might be more shell shocked.
A great many pages are spent explaining how violent the Scots can be –with rape, murder and thievery being our prime examples. Claire several times expects that some person is the culprit of some crime, while another ends up being the guilty party. She should not have tried to dabble into politics as it did little to advance her main narrative. Perhaps it has been explored further in later books, but I am not sure I’ll be sticking around to read those.
Captain Randall, Dougall, countless numbers of drunken men and road bandits, and arguably even Jamie, our supposed hero, are all counted among the men who tried, or did force themselves on Claire. Rape is as old as the sexual act itself, so I am not disputing the existence of assault back in the day, but it would not be as prevalent as Gabaldon makes it out to be, at least not in peace times, and there is not a full fledged war on at this point. That she turned the tables in the end and had Jamie as the one who was assaulted is the only part of the story that rang true (at least until the witchcraft scene). And as with everything else, once this is overcome we are never to hear of it again. This is a problem for the argument of escapism on two fronts. In the first case, it tends to take the reader out of the story if we see that no one is dealing with the consequences of the things that happen to them. Rape and murder – no big deal, they’ll be settled in just a few pages as she plows on and on and on. On the wider context though, it speaks to the fundamental stupidity of romance novels (historical or otherwise), that a person can be personally violated and there are no long term consequences. This book and Fifty Shades of Grey are taking escapism to a very dark corner of the world, even if their ability to transport us to another realm is full of holes and plot points that are thin from wear.
Margaret Atwood’s fantastic novel The handmaid’s Tale was a dystopian view of a world in which war has destroyed a continent and led to the suppression of women. It is a dark tale, equally as dark as anything written by Gabaldon or James, but it stands far above these two for several reasons. Atwood is a far better writer than James or Gabaldon, and her story is consistent. She is able to write characters in difficult situations that are deep and meaningful, and don’t fly off the handle every other page. The reader picking up The Handmaid’s Tale can experience true escapism. Read good writing, you’ll have a much more pleasurable trip.