On the number of steps wish-fulfillment fiction can be removed from reality

by look i have opinions

In the comments on this post about the Fifty Shades of Grey books, there was some discussion about how the author, and many readers, aren’t just suspending disbelief about abuse being desirable—they actually believe it to be desirable. A commenter called Shadow Knight offers an interesting theory:

I think it’s because most people who aren’t experienced readers or are just plain unimaginative […] cannot find fulfilment in a sexual fantasy that is two (or more) steps away from themselves. They can’t be satisfied with a book about a couple who enact a rape/abuse fantasy within the boundaries of consensual and safe roleplaying, the book needs to be about actual rape/abuse, because they are too simple-minded or inexperienced or unimaginative to derive satisfaction from a sexual fantasy that is more than one step away from themselves.”

I realize I tend to look down on unsophisticated readers, and this is no exception. I can’t really apologize for that. (Reading comprehension is important to me. I try, at least, to be kind.) But to my surprise, I see a bit of myself in these unimaginative Fifty Shades readers. I too have for a long time had trouble separating fantasy from reality. I too enjoy the fantasy of doing things that, in real life, would be unethical or nigh suicidal. By reading widely and writing, I have learned to some extent to identify the parts of my fantasies that would be unacceptable in real life, and to compartmentalize.

I agree with Shadow Knight that framing the abuse in a consensual context would ruin it for many readers. I’m not sure I agree that that’s due to a lack of sophistication—at least, not for every reader. Wish-fulfillment fiction is about immersing yourself in a fantasy, and nobody wants to be held back from that total immersion. For me, the ideal framing device would lie outside of the book itself, or perhaps in a foreword; that way, the reader would get a reasonable warning about how to interpret the book’s contents, but could ignore the warning while reading. But maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe the distinction between intra- and extra-narrative framing devices is an arbitrary one, and these unimaginative readers will simply need to become more sophisticated. I hope they do.

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