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J. G. Ballard’s brilliant, “not good” writing (theparisreview.org)
114 points by Caiero 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

Literally just finished High-Rise last week (which was good but not amazing) and I disagree with the essayist's take here that Ballard's just-good-enough prose is somehow reflective of the themes he writes about:

> Not only are his rhythmic cycles, in which phrases and images return in orders and arrangements that mutate and reconfigure themselves as though following some algorithm that remains beyond our grasp, at once incantatory, hallucinatory, and the very model and essence of poetry; but, mirroring the way that information, advertising, propaganda, public (and private) dialogue, and even consciousness itself run in reiterative loops and circuits, constitute a realism far exceeding that of the misnamed literary genre.

On a page-by-page level, Ballard's prose is honestly pretty bland. Which is okay! But I don't think it's an intentional act of genius. There were so many paragraphs in High-Rise where 3+ sentences would start with a participle phrase, often back to back.

The premise itself of the novel was interesting enough, so I managed to turn off my editor brain and enjoyed it for what it was. But there are novelists whose prose does legitimately mirror themes of alienation or paranoia (Pynchon and DeLillo come to mind) and I don't think Ballard is one of them.

As an aside, I've tried to read Crash at least three times now but the increasingly unbearable sex scenes keep driving me away. Not that I'm scandalized (if anything, I wish I were!)—they're just such a slog to get through. If I have to read the phrase "natal cleft" one more time...

If you haven't already, check out W.G. Sebald ("The Rings of Saturn", "The Emigrants", etc).

> But there are novelists whose prose does legitimately mirror themes of alienation or paranoia (Pynchon and DeLillo come to mind)

...or PKD.

Ha, Ubik is one of the next books on my list!

Safe when taken as directed.

I think his prose quality varies widely from work to work. Typically it's not great. In Atrocity Exhibition it's beyond bland, though--almost bureaucratic in its mechanical periphrases, repetitive, clinical and bizarre. I can't imagine that's not intentional. And Crash, if you can stomach it, is outright pungent. At times it reads like an airport novel, at other points it's hallucinatory. Most of the rest is written indifferently, interesting for the ideas but not the writing.

I actually think the repetitive nature of the sex scenes works for Crash bc it starts to mirror the mechanistic nature of the automobiles and transit systems that excite them. But I realize this is basically the same argument that you disagreed with previously :)

I got towards the end of High Rise and then didn't finish it, I never really thought about why (other than more interesting books on my shelves), but this makes sense.

Hilarious and sounds like a username!

o7 Enjoy the yonic euphemism, lol.

Hah. Crash is the only book I read cover to cover while actively disliking it. I was stuck in an Alaskan airport for 8 hours and all the other bookstores were closed.

An early story of Ballard, "The Voices of Time" blew my young mind as a teenager and single-handedly projected me toward a future career in distant places, a journey I could scarcely have imagined from my life on a remote midwest farm. It was immensely gratifying decades later to have an opportunity to thank the author personally after a lecture in London.

Just in case there are any "future me's" out there, here's a link to an unpredictable future adventure.


Incredible, thanks for sharing this.

Anybody who hasn't should read his short story: "Report On An Unidentified Space Station".


Read this link against my better judgement and found it very dull (I find this usually happens with things recommended as "anyone should read x", without any detail). What do you like about it?

Audible has an anthology the collects basically all the short stories - it’s like 60 hrs long.


title is "Complete Short Stories", and yes it's 63 hours long!

I love Ballard, so this is a fine investment.

I need to break it back out myself. I made it through the first ten hours or so. It’s not that I didn’t like it… it’s just so dense and disturbing. Not exactly binging material.

I’ve read many of his short stories, but not that one. Loved it. Thanks for mentioning it

Getting real strong "backrooms" vibes from this.

If you like this, read House of Leaves.

Since I read "Why we are living in JG Ballard’s world" [1] in 2020 I've slowly been making my way through Ballards short stories, and each and every one of them is treat.

Some fall flat, but ones like "Studio 5, the Stars" [2] about automated poetry hit hard in the modern context of ChatGPT and AI generated art.

1. https://www.newstatesman.com/long-reads/2020/04/why-we-are-l...

2. https://readerslibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/Studio-5-The-S...

Interesting, thanks for sharing those links. Have not yet read anything by Ballard but will start with the short "Studio 5, the Stars" which you shared!

Good article. Ballard's tenor and tone are purposeful; it is as if he is trying to present the world of his books through the same sort of lens the world was presented through the media of the day — flat, always something outside what is seen, muted colors, the like [edit: clinical is a word that fits his writing well]. If you have not read Running Wild, I strongly suggest it — this is a prescient book, way ahead of most when it comes to considering what the culture has been busy doing to the kids.

Interesting take. I do have to wonder to what extent these elements are fully attributable to Ballard himself rather than being a product of experimentation that kind of belonged with the genre back then? Personally, I get a similar impression from Brunner's works from roughly the same period, e.g. Stand on Zanzibar, but perhaps I'm comparing apples with.. non-apples :)

> Putting Ballard on a master’s course list, as I’ve done a couple of times, provokes a reaction that’s both funny and illuminating. Asked to read Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition, the more vociferous students invariably express their revulsion, while the more reflective ones voice their frustration that, although the ideas might be compelling, the prose “isn’t good.”

I've been in these kinds of courses. I always found the least helpful part to be hearing people's opinions about books, especially what didn't work for them. The opinions of a group of grad students is pretty worthless to me. Even the hotter takes, which can be entertaining, do not forward my understanding of reading or writing.

What's much more valuable is acknowledging that it is a book, it was published, people did get something out of it—sometimes many people—and then asking why that might be. I always wanted to break apart the mechanics of the style, the architecture of the story's structure, ask why the author did certain things instead of certain other things, etc. What I got instead was an airing of personal grievances, set vaguely against the backdrop of the story, with thin (or nonexistent) textual evidence as support. I always wanted the professor to say "I don't care, what made you think I would care about what you just said?" but they never did.

In fairness, neither did I. But, those classes were my vaccine against academia and literary criticism, so they were not useless and probably saved me from a career of sitting through that.

The worst is when people complain about "unlikable" characters or not being able to "identify" with them. Who cares? The book wasn't written so you could make imaginary friends and has zero to do with its literary merits.

Books are written for one of two reasons: to make a point, or to make money.

If you write to make money, and people can't identify with your characters, other things being equal, you're going to sell fewer copies.

If you write to make a point, and people can't identify with your characters, other things being equal, you're going to attract fewer readers to whom you can make your point.

Why? In both cases, because people don't like reading stuff where the characters do random things for incomprehensible reasons. That's not an interesting book. You might as well write a book about squares in a video game that move according to the output of a random number generator.

That's not to say that surprising things can't happen. They have to, or again, the book isn't interesting. But the characters have to be recognizably human to us, or it quits being a book about human characters.

> Books are written for one of two reasons: to make a point, or to make money.

How about to inform, to amuse or entertain, or to tell a story?

Or because the author feels compelled to write things, or is bored and needs something creative to do?

It's more a question of whether an individual can identify with a character. If a book makes it into a literature class, chances are there's a reason for it. I'd like to get at that, learn about that. Saying whether or not you, specifically, identify with a specific character is simultaneously the most low effort observation you can make, and the least relevant to anyone else in the world. It's one thing to talk about what makes the character hard to identify with in general, but just telling me "I didn't identify with this character" is a waste of everyone's time.

> But the characters have to be recognizably human to us, or it quits being a book about human characters.

It seems like there could be considerable distance between "likable" and "recognizably human". Lots of complaints are around the characters being "unlikable", when they're doing completely human things that are just not nice. If an author is forced to only include friendly and likable characters, there's a pretty substantial limitation on the types of human behavior that can be covered.

Sometimes the dehumanization is the point. I think that's fair to say of Ballard, certainly in the subset of his work with which I'm familiar.

Sometimes you can't use "recognizably human" characters to make the point you need to make. Peter Watts is a good example of this; not only in Blindsight but throughout his body of work, the most effective characters are typically those least recognizable as human.

Such works are typically labeled as "high-concept", and I concede they can be an acquired taste. But it's not at all true to say every story is either at heart about human relationships or worthless, else this other sort of stories would never have been common enough to need naming what distinguishes them.

> ask why the author did certain things instead of certain other things,

I think that the answer to that is unknowable to any mind other than the author's, and the best speculation can come from someone who's digested many of their work for a long period of time. It's certainly an interesting discussion to have if you can find enough people like that but it's tough!

You can definitely make a good guess at it in some cases. It’s often easier when the writer’s not very good at e.g. plot.

Getting too good at it usually means you start automatically spoiling a lot of books for yourself, though. “Why’d this character show up in chapter 3? What do they do for the story? Ohhhh they’re secretly the villain” or “why are we spending so much time with this character right now, in this way? Oh, the author’s gonna kill them.”

I guess you're thinking more plot oriented narratives.

I was thinking about something like Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, Proust, where the artistic choices are more stylistic and about examining thought itself, rather than structurally about characters and events.

Ah, sure, that does work differently. You’re not so likely to spot the seams of the author’s stitching-together of the plot in those. (Any readers who’ve wondered, unprofitably, what literature nerds mean when they separate out capital-L “Literature” as a distinct category: that right there is one factor that tends to push it into literature territory)

Though if one is not constantly asking “what might be intended here? What might this signify?” and similar questions while reading those kinds of works, I’m not sure what one is doing while reading them. That’s not identical to asking what the author was thinking, but I do believe that considering why the author chose one thing instead of another (why doesn’t the boat get to the lighthouse? What would change if it did?) is often worth doing, and I think sometimes one can arrive at something like the author’s reasons (even if it can’t be known for sure).

[edit] “But who cares if some reading of an episode or element of the story is the one intended by the author?” is the obvious question, then: I’d say if we can get at a plausible intended reading, with some reason and evidence behind it, that’s likely to present a more-useful lens or jumping-off point for unraveling and drawing meaning from other parts of the work, or even the author’s other works, than any given WAG one might think up. It’s not necessary to create and support a hypothesis of what the author had in mind at every turn, but if likely intent can be teased out, it helps direct profitable lines of inquiry elsewhere.

I just love Ballard and pity that I took so long as a science-fiction fan to discover him, but of course he is one of those "science-fiction" writers who isn't solidly part of the genre.

As a 15 year old and avid science fiction reader, I used to badger my English Lit teacher constantly. He always maintained that Ballard was one of very few SF writers he liked and one of the few that he felt were good writers on a technical level. (I haven't read the article yet, but I sense some irony in the air)

I still disagree with his definitions but Ballard is definitely special.

I always felt like those who were good at "writing, on a technical level" never had any interesting stories, or even interesting ideas. Still waiting for someone to suggest a counter-example.


[edit] also, if you like short stories and novellas, I found the New Hugo Winners series (in which Asimov had taken a back seat as editor, writing in his introduction, to paraphrase, “I do not understand these kids”) has a way higher average quality of writing than the older Hugo Winners series. The ideas didn’t seem a lot worse to me, either. But I’ve also read a lot more of the regular Hugo Winner series so maybe I just got very lucky with the New Hugo volumes I’ve picked up.

That reminds me of the HN discussion a little while back of Cordwainer Smith: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=35978901

In SF, I’d suggest James Tiptree Jr as someone with both great writing skills and great ideas.

I agree with sibling suggestions of James Tiptree Jr., Gene Wolfe, and Iain M. Banks. Also: John Crowley.

Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin, Samuel Delaney, Harlan Ellison, Cordwainer Smith, R.F. Lafferty, C.J. Cherryh and well, hundreds of others.

Iain Banks

Use of Weapons in particular

Well. Ballard?

Gene Wolfe?

I've read a fair amount of Ballard's work and I think really like his prose. It was particularly interesting to read his autobiographical 'The kindness of women' which does a lot to explain the themes that recurr in his work. If you haven't read any of his work, I recommend starting with some of his short stories, such as "The drowned giant". Probably give 'The atrocity exhibition' and 'Crash' a miss, at least until you have read some of his other work.

I also highly recommend Extreme Metaphors. It's a collection of interviews with Ballard where he tells you precisely what his writing is about.

Related. Others?

J. G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction No. 85 (1984) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25521617 - Dec 2020 (11 comments)

Banham avec Ballard: On style and violence (2019) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22701113 - March 2020 (7 comments)

Am I missing something? I've never read Ballard, but found this article to be pretty terrible. Is it meant to satirize or mimic Ballard's writing? The run on sentences, the [a and b, c and d, e and f] structure, the superfluous language all made this writing feel like a pretentious slog. I feel like I'm missing something.

I’d encourage anyone to seek out a couple of his interviews which are available on the usual video web site. An interesting fellow.

This one struck me : Future Now - Interview with J.G. Ballard.


Interesting interview (1986). Narration in Swedish with English subtitles.

"I wanted to write about the next 5 minutes, not the last 30 years. The only form of fiction that had the vocabulary of ideas to deal with the next 5 minutes was science fiction. I wanted a science fiction for the present day. It seemed to me that the future was a better key to the present than the past."

"What is so strange about the world we inhabit today is the way in which fiction and reality have become reversed. 20, 30, 40 years ago everybody had a clear idea that reality was the external world around you, the world of work, industry and commerce. Fantasy and the imagination was the world inside our head, the private dreams and hopes for the future. Now that's been reversed. Now the external landscapes of our world are almost entirely fictional, made up of advertising and publicity - an artificial man-made landscape. The only point of reality we each of us have is inside our heads. Our own obsessions are all we have."

especially his experiences as a child under Japanese occupation.

I find Ballard kind of mesmerizing but frustrating. Crash I quite enjoyed, but other short stories I often felt his concerns and subjects quite alien. I join just about everyone else in saying read him, but I would never say he was prescient, as some do. He was chasing after something that feels kinda foreign to me. Too English for me maybe?

His prescience isn't what makes him interesting. In many ways he is writing about the past and the present.

He is unique for his tone. "Ballardian" conveys something immediately recognisable to anyone that's read more than a handful of his short stories and it conveys something that is fairly unique.

The recent craze for "liminal spaces" captures some of the flavour. But it's also intrinsically British and very much a 70s thing. Maybe it's just my memory of Britain in the 70s but the movie of Crash failed to capture the right mood, whereas High Rise did remarkably well.

He was also stupendously influential in post-punk music - not for the music (Ballard had zero interest in music) but for the lyrics. He supplied the imagery for the subgenre. I wrote about it a bit here: https://rocknerd.co.uk/2016/10/25/j-g-ballard-and-music-how-...

Without looking and off the top of my head - Joy Division, John Foxx-era Ultravox, Gary Numan (probably by way of John Foxx... Erm. There are others. Can I peek now?

"Warm Leatherette" by The Normal as covered by Grace Jones!

but yeah. Ballard supplied the imagery for the New Wave.

Yes, his fiction feels more of the past other authors writing in the same period.

I grabbed a volume of his stories just now, and it starts off with a story that I would say feels very, uh, mid century, The Concentration City. Then Manhole 69, which captures some of that liminal space thing you mention. And then Chronopolis, which seems very mid century to me again.

Love Ballard's novels. Recently finished The Day of Creation which had echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness but where the hero this time is Kurtz.

Seems like all of his novels are about an everyday man who encounters some unsettling kind of wildness or chaos and then "goes native" and achieves some kind of abnormal stability.

Kind of the opposite of Paul Bowles, whose characters seem unable to grasp the alien cultures and situations in which they find themselves, to their peril. Since it's Bowles, most of the time "alien" means "Morocco".

Anyone who seriously sits down and thinks Ballard's prose isn't precisely what he intended it to be needs to read more widely.

Oh G-d we need less of this, please.

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