Audrey Putney explains why she used the scare quotes in her title:
Many people accuse the genre of fantasy fiction of being a means of escape. Because the worlds in fantasy novels are generally meant to be fantastical and so unlike our own, it is assumed that the people who read them are escaping into a more pleasant world. This is not always the case. After all, how can it be deemed "escaping" if the world that is laid out for the reader in a fantasy novel is intended to be worse than our own? What are we escaping into then? In actuality, fantasy novels use their fantastical elements to present real-life problems in an obvious way.
One thing that can be said about fantasy novels is that everything within them seems to be bigger and better. In a manner of speaking, anyway. For example, fantasy novels always seem to present two sides to any battle: the side of good and the side of evil. While this is certainly a parallel to everyday life, fantasy presents the two sides as polar opposites. Those who are going into battle on the side of good are capable of only doing good. Those who are on the side of evil are undeniably evil and more so than anything you would be able to imagine in the real world. Usually there is also a major character that is struggling with which side to choose, allowing the audience to have someone to identify with. Using such extremes allows the author to present the problems the world is facing in a much clearer way. When problems are blown up in this way, it becomes difficult to ignore even the most subtle metaphors.
The worlds of fantasy fiction are flawed. Sometimes even fatally so. This is why it's so hard to actually dismiss the genre as "escapist." One of the novels that helps illustrate this point is King's Blood Four by Sheri S. Tepper. In the world of the Lands of the True Game, the characters' lives become at risk the moment they leave school. They spend their entire lives training to exist outside of the school and they are only ever given two choices: train or be useless. Additionally, prior to entering the Lands of the True Game, their roles are assigned to them. Essentially, any choices that they have are limited or taken away from them. In what way would a person want to "escape" into this world?
On top of this, Tepper uses her world to show her audience some of the more pressing social issues that we have to deal with on a daily basis. In the school, we see that Peter is looked down upon because he is a "foundling" rather than a "sentling." This allows Tepper to deal with the very real class system that's still around, especially in schools, to this day. However, that's not to say that this example has to deal exclusively with class. In fact, one could substitute any modern social problem that we have in this world and the example would still work just as well.
J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the foremost authors in the fantasy genre, defends the claim that it cannot be viewed merely as escapist in his essay "On Fairy-Stories." Within the essay, Tolkien advocates that fantasy should not be considered escapist necessarily as oftentimes the work provides the reader with the ability to see their world through the perspective of another. Something that seems quite commonplace to us can be considered strange in a fantasy world, causing the reader to reevaluate the world in which we live. Additionally, Tolkien points out that an individual does not need fantasy to escape since they always have their own mind. He likens his point to a prisoner. The prisoner is not made to only think of his surroundings. Finally, Tolkien includes the point that some readers may seek works of fantasy as a consolation. The happy endings the authors offer up are more pleasing than the events in the readers' lives.
Fantasy as a genre is generally accused of being quite escapist. However, there are several arguments that can be used to refute this claim. Some fantasy worlds are actually worse than the one in which the reader resides. Fantasy is not necessarily the only means of escape. The reader can learn a life lesson through reading fantasy, as it offers them a different perspective on their own world. However, for as many arguments there are to refute the claim of escapism, every time a story has a happy ending the same claim will simply resurface.