03 May 2009

J G Ballard, 1930-2009: A Man's Man?

The British writer J G (James Graham) Ballard died on 19 April. Many excellent obituaries of J G Ballard have been written, and I don't intend to try to emulate them here. Instead, I suggest you check out the obituaries by Harvey Molloy and Jack Ross, and also the entire special section devoted to Ballard from the Guardian.

My experience of reading J G Ballard has been remarkably similar to Jack Ross's experience. Like Jack, I was already an SF fan, though in my case it was the YA SF novels of John Christopher that I was reading when I first encountered Ballard; like Jack, the first Ballard I read was the novella "The Voices of Time"; as he did Jack, so Ballard gave me a completely different view of what science fiction could do. I read all the early Ballard I could get my hands on - the short story collections The Terminal Beach and The Atrocity Exhibition, and the four catastrophe novels that map to the four classical elements, my favourites among them being The Drowned World and The Crystal World (the others are The Wind from Nowhere and The Burning World aka The Drought).

These novels were superficially similar to the post-war English "cosy catastrophe" novels I had read previously, such as John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids - novels in which upper lips remain stiff even as civilisation collapses around their owners. But in Ballard's world, both the external world and the narrator's mental state were in transition from one state to another. As a young man, these descriptions of unavoidable external and internal transformation resonated with me, and influenced my own writing. Though I have rarely read Ballard in recent years, it only takes a couple of paragraphs of his unique prose - both cool and feverish — to remind me why I once read little else.

I say "as a young man" deliberately, because it seems to me that JG Ballard is a writer who speaks to and appeals to men much more than women. Part of the reason for this may be the sheer quantity of sex and violence, and sexualised violence, in some of his books. Another, at least in his early work, is that his protagonists are alienated males, frequently known only by their surnames (Travis, Travers, Traven, Talbot; Vaughan; Ransome), adrift in this world and searching for psychological fulfilment in a world remade closer to their desires. Their relationships are superficial, their loyalties to the imagined world inside their minds rather than to family or friends. It's existentialism run rampant, and existentialism has always struck me as a particularly masculine philosophy.

I have no doubt that J G Ballard is a great writer - and there's no obligation on writers, even great writers, to appeal to all readers equally. But am I right in thinking that his work appeals more to men than to women?

8 comments:

Meliors Simms said...

Well, none of his work has ever held any appeal to me (a woman), I don't think I've read any of it.
For a long time I only read female sci fi authors, and now while I read plenty of sci fi men, I don't tend to bother with anything published before about 1980 (with some honorable exceptions) because I just can't be bothered with having to repeatedly decide that I won't be irritated by the sexism.
I realise this comment could be inviting a wave of recommendations of classic non-sexist male sci-fi. Yeah! Bring it on!

Matthew Bartlett said...

Haven't read any Ballard, I confess, but I think you're right about existentialism being a masculine philosophy (maybe even boyish). As I understand existentialism at least, there's no room for (forgive me) the feminine -- babies, gardens, nurture, growing things, gradual process; it's all the moment, grand gestures, and facing ones death/god.

harvey molloy said...

You are absolutely right. Ballard subject is men, men, men and male fantasies: it's all a male fantasy and there's no attempt to ever question or escape this fantasy. However, there is the fascinating tension (or perhaps 'dynamic' is the right word) between fantasy and the landscape and a kind of crushing insistence on desire. It's all unbalanced, surreal, at times mathematical (or abstract), tirelessly repetitive and totally unique. For all of his repetition he's open to many different reading and in many ways he deserves the most severe hostile reading (in fact, the perversity of his writing almost welcomes it!) I enjoy his landscapes and think of him as a male surrealist sf writer. But he did greatly expand SF's genre convention: for that reason alone he not simply a 'sexist' or 'conservative' writer although he could easily be read in this way. Like you, I don't read these days and read most of his books in my late teens/early twenties.

Philip Sington said...

As a youngster I struggled with Ballard's unalloyed pessimism, but there is no doubt that he was one of a rapidly vanishing breed: a writer who pursued his own vision (and perhaps his own demons) without regard for all the rules about What Makes A Successful Book.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your comments, Meliors, Matthew, Harvey and Philip. All very valid, which is impressive, since they are also all quite different!

I'm wondering if I've been fair in describing Ballard as an existentialist, since God doesn't get much of a look-in in his work (even as an opponent). But his protagonists certainly struggle against inexorable opponents, although, in the end, they often surrender to those opponents. Ballard himself said that his chief influences were psychoanalysis and surrealism. As Philip says, he as an admirable example of following one's own vision regardless as a writer.

I'm not so far seeing Meliors' hoped-for wave of recommendations of classic non-sexist male sci-fi. I think I'd have to do some research (quite a lot of research?) to come up with a list. Anyone want to ump in with some recommendations?

Matthew Bartlett said...

Perhaps obvious, but: Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Mars' trilogy and Years of Rice and Salt book.

Meliors Simms said...

Matthew, you are so right that KSR is one of the earliest/best male sci fi authors to write books that don't grate on feminist sensibilities. In the late 1990s KSR was my bridge (via Antartica) from reading a little feminist sci fi to being a sci fi fan (my genre fiction of choice pre KSR was mystery novels). And though I adore KSR, even his earliest (California) novels don't do it for me at all. So my question remains, were there any great male authors publishing nonsexist novels prior to 1980?

Tim Jones said...

That question deserves some thought. In fact, it deserves a blog post. I'll try to write one by the end of the month, but at this stage I don't know whether there are any novels that meet your challenge.