I think many of us (myself included) divide fiction into two camps: "genre" fiction and "literary" fiction. In the latter category are those plodding, intensely character-driven books in which nothing much happens except flowery language, extended metaphors, and author ego. In the former category are those escapist genres that we all dip our toes into, either occasionally or regularly:
- Science Fiction
- Thriller (horror doesn't seem to be as big as it used to be)
But are these genres all primarily "escapist," or do they reflect our desire to alter reality to an idealized state?
Legions of people look down their noses at Harlequin Romances and other books of that nature, but I'd venture to say that most people are concerned with romance, love, and sex on an almost daily basis. It doesn't matter if you're old or young, single or married, straight or gay -- you probably spend some time each day thinking about your romantic situation and how it could be better. Those who read romances, I suspect, are seeking an ideal world where love triumphs and everyone remains beautiful and sexy.
Though I haven't read a lot of science fiction, I have read some. A common theme seems to be advances in technology that solve some problems while creating many others. SciFi also has alternate worlds and universes, created from the author's sense of how a society might be created from scratch. But even the most perfect of societies has to be inhabited by less-then-perfect beings, and that's where the conflict (and the plot) start.
Many mystery lovers and readers talk about the mystery novel's primary appeal being a certain sense of justice. The good end happily, the bad badly, and villains usually get what's coming to them. Murderers are convicted and/or brought to justice, and wrongs are redressed.
I wouldn't argue with that in the least, but it seems to me that mystery novels are also appealing because they address the human frustration at a lack of answers. For every answer we get, more questions pop up. Think of the typical fictional "he said--she said" scenario, where we see two sides to a story. Doesn't this reflect the realities of society, where different people can interpret the same situation (or words) in very different ways? Why did someone act as s/he did? What exactly was X thinking when he made that decision? Why on earth did Y marry Z, when there are so many better prospective spouses out there? What exactly goes on in the White House, on the streets of your city, in your neighbors' houses?
In our daily lives, we'll never know the answers to these questions. We may get bits and pieces of insight, but we'll never know the full picture. But in a (good) mystery--all our questions are answered. In what other venue besides the mystery novel are questions raised and answered in a completely satisfactory manner? Thus I would posit that mystery novels don't just appeal to our sense of justice--they also appeal to our desire for clean, complete answers--which, most of the time, exist only in fiction, but not in the world around us.