A sharp and provocative visionary
INTERVIEWS:JG Ballard’s strange imaginative world was often misread during his lifetime, but now it seems uncannily like our own
Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews With JG Ballard, 1967-2008, Edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, Fourth Estate 503pp, £25
The late JG Ballard might be the greatest English writer of the 20th century. He was certainly, for much of the second half of that century, the least understood, and most misread, when he was read at all.
In 1970, when a senior executive at Ballard’s American publishing house finally got around to reading a finished copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, he was so horrified that he ordered all copies to be pulped. In the UK, the reader’s report for Ballard’s 1972 novel Crash famously said: “This writer is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.”
But live long enough and respectability eventually covers you, like jungle vegetation claiming a wartime runway. In 1984, his most nakedly autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Martin Amis says on the back of this handsome hardback collection of interviews: “Ballard will be remembered as the most original English writer of the last century.” Will Self concurs: “Ballard issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience. Other writers describe; Ballard anticipated.”
He most certainly did. The chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition that so disgusted Nelson Doubleday was titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. In it, Ballard portrayed the former Hollywood actor, who’d costarred with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo, as president of the United States. It would be more than a decade before reality caught up with the author’s imagination.
Indeed, some of the interviews here are almost comically prescient. For example, Ballard predicted Facebook before the internet even existed. In 1979, dismissing the BBC and ITV news as “that irrelevant mixture of information about a largely fictional external world”, he describes a future in which we video everything, and “the real news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version of the day’s rushes. ‘My God, there’s Jenny having her first ice cream!’ or ‘There’s Candy coming home from school with her new friend.’ Now all that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of the day, and how it affects every individual.” (And, yes, he goes on to predict YouPorn.)
He predicted the future, but he also questioned the present. And many of the questions he raises here have not yet been answered. The real issue, behind all the fake issues, in this year’s American election was summed up succinctly by Ballard in 1984, talking to Thomas Frick: “Marxism is a social philosophy for the poor, and what we need badly is a social philosophy for the rich.”
As with a number of the more interesting American SF writers of his era (Philip K Dick, Thomas M Disch, John Sladek), Ballard became a science-fiction writer by default; that market was the only available outlet for fiction this odd. But he was not a science-fiction writer. He was not, indeed, a writer, in the normal sense of the term. Ballard was a visual artist. He makes the point again and again here: the greatest influences on his works are not other literary works but the paintings of the surrealists. As he said in an interview with James Goddard and David Pringle in 1975: “They’re all paintings, really, my novels and stories.”