With fantasy, it is possible to have the ordinary person triumph over the most horrendous situations.
I think that in today’s society, we face a myriad problems which seem unsolvable (even to sf writers, unless there is huge intervention at governmental levels and the massive investment of capital). We have problems like global warming and the war in Iraq, to whether my office block/tube train is going to be hit by terrorists, to whether there really is going to be a future in which I can clear my credit card debt, find a decent job in a place I want to live in, bring up my kids to be decent human beings, and end up with enough money for my retirement and health care.
When people faced with this kind of life buy a book to read, they want to do more than just “get away from it all”. They want to be left with the feeling that an ordinary person can make a difference. Not some genius scientist, or an astronaut - but an office worker from Milton Keynes or Hoboken, or a medieval shoemaker from Upper Yikmak. Fantasy leaves them feeling better about themselves, and gives them a sense of the possibility of empowerment. So what if it took a magic spell or similar, the struggle to obtain that spell or that magic can still inspire if the book was a good one. The little man (or woman) can triumph.
In a topic like this, I think we should never lose sight of the fact that people who read a site like Deep Genre - and leave a comment - are a very small minority of sff readers. We are the writers and the fans, the editors and the con goers. The people who buy most fantasy and sf are just people who want to get away from it all and be left with a good feeling, when they put the book down, about the possibilities open to them in their own lives.
And, of course, everybody reading this blog is instantly going to think of twenty exceptions where complex, thought provoking, depressing books hit the best seller lists…