Becoming Norma Desmond

Out and about on Wednesday night (at an event run by the estimable Poet in the City, which everyone should know about – they do fantastic poetry events round the City of London), and, as it does in pubs, the conversation turned to fantasy and sf.

As it also does when you’re around people-whose-genre-is-literary, someone came up with the question – ‘why do you write genre fiction when it has nothing to do with reality, and therefore has no point to it?’

Of course this is a red rag to a bull for me; my answering rant went on for about half an hour. In fact, it only ended when I paused for breath and noticed that the bar staff were putting the stools upside down on the tables and everyone else had left.

One of the points I made was that modern literary fiction is a pretty late arrival on the literary scene, really only beginning in the 19th Century. Fantasy has been around forever, from Homer on.

But thinking about it, that’s not such a good point after all. Much of the writing that foreshadows or powers the modern fantastic – archaic Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse and other myth cycles, Christian narratives from ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, Renaissance magical tracts, and so on – were written as fact.

For their original creators and consumers, they weren’t fantasies at all; they were factual components of a coherent and internally consistent worldview. We use them as source material for fictions that know they’re fiction, but that’s absolutely not what they originally were.

The modern Western European worldview is a profoundly scientific one. So, it favours narratives that engage with reality in a way that’s based on quasi-scientific observation. Seen in this light, fantastic narratives can be seen as a hangover from an earlier, discredited way of understanding the world.

From this point of view, Fantasy writing becomes Norma Desmond; a glamorous, pointless relic. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, she’s a leftover from the great days of silent movies, eking out a ghostly living in the LA of the 50s.

And if we look at Fantasy like this, then Norma Desmond becomes a very relevant figure. She’s a useful index of how less conscientious critics can perceive the genre; and her personal trajectory is an incredibly potent warning against both bombast in general (‘I AM big. It’s the movies that got small’) and the specific genre sin of letting fantasising become an end in itself, rather than a mirror with which to confront the world.

And so, to conclude, here’s Norma herself in the final moments of the film, in all her deluded, tragic magnificence. Broken, maddened and desperately alone, a murderess about to be arrested, a haunted and futile relic of a forgotten world, she steps in front of the cameras and stops the show, one last, unforgettable time.

3 thoughts on “Becoming Norma Desmond

  1. But seriously: I think Fantasy, even when it tries to “shy away from the real world,” instead becomes an unconscious mirror of the fantasy writer’s fears and hang-ups, a crude psychodrama — the “Return Of the Repressed”, if you will.

    I’m convinced that, despite the denial of J.R.R. Tolkien and a legion of fans, THE LORD OF THE RINGS does contain a great deal of subtext/metaphor.

    In fact, I find the insistent denials that “There’s nothing between the lines, Fantasy is all fantasy” suspect and not very credible — like saying that “Little Red Riding Hood” is really just about a talking wolf stalking a girl and her grandmother.

    So what are the subtexts of modern commercial fantasy lit? What bogeymen are lurking in all those dragons, boy wizards and quasi-Medieval settings? Someone with patience and a taste for that kind of literature might dig up some interesting stuff….

  2. Absolutely – it’s like saying, ‘Well, it’s only a dream’ post Jung and Freud. In a sense the understanding that ‘all this is meaningless’ is an understanding for the subconscious to run riot – or rather, for unquestioned assumptions to run riot.

    On the subtexts of modern un-self aware fantasy – M. John Harrison’s the man for some of the finest current ranting about that…

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