Properly used, the idea of escape should present no difficulties. It is quite normal and natural that people should desire to avoid an unsatisfactory situation and should try any means at their disposal to do so. But the term “escape” has had a more restricted usage. Whereas it properly applies to all men, there was an attempt to restrict its application to some men. As so restricted, it suggested that the people to whom it was applied tended to orientate themselves in a totally different way from the people to whom it was not applied, the former always trying to escape from life or avoid realities, while the latter faced realities. There may be such a distinction. At least, there are many critics who avoided telling us precisely what they meant by life, avoidance, and facing reality. In this way, through escaping from the difficulties of their critical problem, they were free to accuse many writers and thinkers of escape. In the end, the term came to be applied loosely, in literary criticism especially, to designate any writer or reader whose interests and aims did not closely coincide with those of the critic. While apparently defining a trait of the person referred to, the term hardly did more than convey the attitude of the person making the reference. It looked objective, as though the critic were saying “X is doing so-and-so”; but too often it became merely a strategic way of saying, “I personally don’t like what X is doing.”
Or, otherwise stated: There were grave social dissatisfactions resented by poets; the poets symbolized their resentment in many ways; and any kind of symbolization that did not suit the critic’s particular preferences was called an escape. The term thus tended to beg the question, as it apparently solved the very issue which should have been the subject of discussion. One could dismiss the account of a voyage into the rigors of Labrador as mere escape—or one could say that we are here as “escapists” from such rigors as those of Labrador. Accordingly, in its restricted use the term seems worse than worthless as a device for clarifying the relationship between correct and faulty orientation. As it properly applies to all men, one cannot very well confine its application to some men without forever covertly drawing upon the correctives of private judgement.
Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change. There’s a lot of similarity here to arguments that Tolkien and Lewis would make in defense of escapism, but Burke sharpens the knife a bit by depicting the rather classist basis for calling something “escapist.” (Burke and the Inklings would not have gotten along, but it makes me glad to see them sharing this view.)