Wish-Fulfillment Is Not Always Wrong

"Yes Yes Yes No No No" scene from Singin' in the Rain
Background: I believe that women do not automatically read romance literature out of wish-fulfillment, i.e. because they see themselves as the heroine of the piece and/or want to be swept away by Darcy or Mel Gibson or, to update myself a little, Josh Hutchinson or (still) Darcy.

The statement/attitude that women only read romance out of a desperate need to "get themselves a guy" is almost always accompanied by a guffaw, smirk, or patronizing tone. Truth: women readers are as capable as anyone at reading something for other types of reasons, from philosophical to writerly.

In this post, however, I want to defend the idea of reading for wish-fulfillment. Although it often gets mocked, it is a perfectly respectable reason to read.

I argue in my thesis that many readers engage in a synthesis of "using" and "receiving." I am borrowing C.S. Lewis's terms from An Experiment in Criticism, in which he argues that "users" read for the message or the personal application; he is understandably not a fan of "using," and I don't completely disagree. I saw plenty of "using" during my years as a student: people reading great literature in order to find evidence for their socio-politico-eonomico theories. And one doesn't need great literature to do that kind of thing. I can do it with a cereal box.

My contribution to Middle Earth fan fiction: a
continuation of Tolkien's map.
C.S. Lewis uses the second term, "receiving" to refer to readers allowing themselves to be swept away by a poem or short story or novel or play. They don't judge the work until they have fully experienced it.

In my thesis, I suggest a third road that combines "using" and "receiving." My point was/is that people have a creative instinct or urge (a theory that Steven Johnson defends in his latest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World), even if they aren't "creative" in the painting-pictures-writing-books-spouting-poetry sense. In fact, the desire to "make" can be as basic as "I want to make a good birthday party" or "I want to make a decent filing system." Like Johnson, I suggest that this desire has as much weight (if not more) than power and money. (And is the basic reason why theories like Marxism that ignore community involvement and personal experience so grossly misread people and fall short of even stock-market-valid prophetic outcomes.)

The desire to exercise the creative impulse means that while people want to get swept away by Middle Earth or Asimov's robots or Ahab's Pequod, they also want to imagine themselves inside those worlds. Or at least imagine that world as a real experience. It's the same reason that shows like 1900 House were so popular yet failed--the capacity for humans to imagine an experience outweighs any reality (show).

When I watched my brothers and their friends play
Dungeons & Dragons, it was the pewter figurines
that enthralled me. The game itself was too much like Risk,
which meant it was boring, not corrupting.
The latter issue is the problem--and the reason that people guffaw at wish-fulfillment. Wanting-to-be-part-of-the-romance immediately conjures up images of women (mostly) and men (too) investing themselves in a world to the point where they cease to pay their bills or feed the dog--or, to put this in social terms, date real people or apply for real jobs.

And sure, that can happen. But people who do that stuff don't need literature, popular or "great", to pull it off. Whether they retreat to an created world for escapism or some other reason, that world is no more likely by itself to engender a negative outcome than Dungeons & Dragons was to produce psychopaths (I grew up around Dungeons & Dragons players--they all turned out fine).

As a kid, I was obsessed with Star Wars and my striped
shirt. Neither did me any damage, although I literally
unraveled the striped shirt--unfortunately.
Besides which, beyond the kind of obsession that involves people locking themselves in a room with a media system that plays Avatar over and over and over (or listening to radio pundits rant about politics over and over and over), a little obsession is by no means an unhealthy, unproductive, or problematic thing.

I think the issue comes down to semantics. The truth is obsessive nitpicking of great literature in order to produce boring socio-politico-economico theories can be just (if not more) limiting than writing fan fiction.

But writing a "treatise" or "exploring the juxtaposition of ideological factors in The Scarlet Letter" sounds better than "I wrote some fan fiction about a character who joins the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings" (see above).

Truth: In the long run, the fan fiction will prove more satisfying and more productive. It is always better to create than destroy.


FreeLiveFree said...

The most adolescent fan-fiction work still seems more adult than a lot of academic treatises.

One of the things about wish-fulfillment is that a lot of places in fantasy fiction are pretty grim. Do you want to live in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age where hordes of barbarians are always ready to destroy civilization (of course, Howard was on the barbarians side.) Do you want to live in the world of Game of Thrones with it's constant treachery? How about Attack On Titan where man-eating giants have exterminated most of humanity? Even Middle-Earth had some very nasty parts! Frodo had to leave for the Grey Havens to get PTSD treatment!

There's is an undoubtedly wish-fulfillment in some of these works, but it's interesting type of wish-fulfillment. It's less an unhealthy obsession than what G.K. Chesterton said:

"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Katherine Woodbury said...

I love that quote!

I think a kind of internal editing also goes on. I have friends who wish they lived back in Laura Ingalls Wilder's time--based on the wonderful books with the Garth Williams' illustrations. I think the books are wonderful, but I have NO desire to live back in the 19th century on the American frontier. I can't even begin to romanticize it. Maybe this is result of having pioneer ancestry . . . But I think it's more intrinsic laziness. If I was in the Shire, I'd react like Fredegar Bolger to Frodo's quest: "Uh, no, I can be helpful right here."

Joe said...

I'm not so much interested in why people read (or are otherwise entertained), but more why others seem so intent on creating a moral (or moralized intellectual) scale of critique for those reasons.

"wish-fulfillment" has long struck me as a condescending criticism, even if partly accurate (only extremely crazy people think reading book will actual fulfill their wishes!) But, even factoring in the hyperbole, how is "wish-fulfillment" worse than... whatever other motivation you can invent.

I tried to come up with a comparison and failed. I suppose I'm not even sure what "wish-fulfillment" is since merely empathizing with a character would seem to qualify. Are critics really proposing that reading should be a masochistic or purely cerebral affair? (Unfortunately, for many the answer is yes.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

It's one of those "irregular" verbs as Bernard says on Yes, Prime Minster: "I have an independent mind; you are an eccentric; he is round the twist."

So empathizing with the soul-destroying angst of (pick a character from the classics or a French film) is "insightful." Wanting to be that character/undergo that character's experience is "daring" or "intellectually rigorous" or "realistic." Satisfying an emotional need through the character is "transcendent," "morally fulfilling," "life-changing," and/or "educational."

Do the same thing with a romance or a superhero movie or fantasy or anything that literary types disdain: THAT'S "wish-fulfillment."

FreeLiveFree said...

One of my favorite websites is Frontier Partisans about the American west and other frontier areas. (More about the clashes between settlers and Indians than life on ranch or farm)


(He's done a few posts on Tolkien as well.)

I do think that life is earlier times in someways might be more fulfilling than in later. Human are still biologically adapted to more primitive environments. But you could also step on a nail and die of tetanus.

Katherine Woodbury said...

. . and have few to no rights regarding politics or religion, be forced to live with your family for your entire life (sometimes even if married), be illiterate (most of the human race, including monarchs, for most of human existence), be entirely dependent on weather-locusts-blight conditions, go to prison for debt, be forced to work in only specific occupations (mostly agricultural for most of the human race up until the 19th century), have no central heating, accept being hungry as a "norm," have a high expectation of dying/becoming a slave/captive during a war/border skirmish, and, going back to hunter/gatherers, lose over 50% of your tribe's population in skirmishes over water holes.

I'm afraid the nostalgic-for-the-past gene got completely left out of my body.

Despite my cynicism--thanks for the website :) I'm teaching about Homesteaders to my history class on Monday, and it looks quite useful!

Katherine Woodbury said...

Despite my inability to see the past as a place I'd want to visit (even with Middle Earth, I see myself mostly hanging out in Rivendell--the cool Rivendell built by Peter Jackson), I do think that people in the past did not necessarily compare themselves against what they didn't have (they obviously did to some extent because we now have it). Any more than we do.

100 years from now, people will wonder how on earth we folks in the early 21st century survived without Mars travel and teleporters, holographic novels and alien friends (boy, they were so primitive back then!).

Human beings fill whatever time they have with whatever that time offers. The same applies to single people--they don't necessarily do less because they DON'T have a spouse and children. They simply fill their time differently. And everybody fills their time--even if it is with barn raising, needlework, and poetry recitations.

I do miss board games.

FreeLiveFree said...

Frontier Partisans mostly deals with various conflicts on the American (and South African) frontiers than the normal peace time activities. That said he's fairly even handed in his treatment of both sides. He also gets into the Mexican Revolution and World War One. Also, a lot on country music.

As for Tolkien....

Katherine Woodbury said...

He has a post on black cowboys! This subject came up today as I was explaining how the plantation system wasn't the whole story with the South. Many if not most homesteaders--those who owned slaves and those who didn't--lived in the margins or wilds of the Southern states. And many, many blacks and whites kept going West.

Unfortunately, like often happens when I know stuff but can't remember where I read it, I couldn't give them names. Now I can!

(I did mention that Nichelle Nichols, Uhuru, came from a family that lived on the Southern "frontier." Her black great-grandmother married a Welsh man. I was then able to segue into a discussion of Star Trek, LeVar Burton, and Whoopi Goldberg.

I like to brag that I can relate ANYTHING back to Star Trek--which may not be that astonishing a feat.)

FreeLiveFree said...

He did some more posts on how diverse the fur trade was...