[From Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden edited by Stephen Jones; first published in Publishing News, July 24, 1987.]
Some Harsh Words for the Critics from Ballard and Barker.
by Rodney Burbeck
Shepperton is just about as close as you can get to the soft underbelly of Thatcherite Britain. Clean, smooth-running commuter trains take breadwinners off to the City; baby Volvos glide into convenient parking bays outside neat, well-stocked shopping parades which are set back discreetly from the road; streets are shower-fresh, lawns stripy-mown.
There's a mid-morning aroma of percolated coffee, a feeling that all is well with the world. And yet... Small details jar the impression of comfortable ordinariness. The house I seek out in a quiet tree-lined cul-de-sac has a bright, canary-yellow front door, upsetting the symmetry of the cosy Thirties semis. A neighbour's bedroom curtain twitches as I rat-tat-tat the door knocker.
Inside, the house has a brooding, time-warped quality. Suddenly the senses are sent jangling. The smallish drawing room is dominated by a startling surrealist oil painting, about five foot square, propped up against the fireplace. It is overtly erotic and threateningly violent -- a naked woman lies in a lush landscape diminishing into the distance, in the foreground bare-breasted women stare out accusingly. It is Delvaux's 'The Rape'.
The scene could not be set more fittingly for a meeting between the veteran of science fiction/fantasy, J.G. Ballard, celebrating this year the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of his first book, and the thrusting young turk of horror/fantasy, Clive Barker. Both, though, prefer to be categorized, if at all, as writers of imaginative fiction.
Each has a new book which promises to be an autumn bestseller. Each is an epic of imagination -- Ballard's 'The Day of Creation' (Gollancz) and Barker's 'Weaveworld' (Collins).
Publishing News brought the two together in Ballard's Shepperton home. What developed was a fascinating two hours of rolling conversation, as they dissected and analyzed their craft, their motivations and their prejudices.
There was added piquancy because Ballard broke out of the mould of the genre with which he had been associated since 'The Wind from Nowhere' in 1962, with the mainstream success 'Empire of the Sun', and Barker, acclaimed for his 'Books of Blood' Sphere series and 'The Damnation Game', is now seeking a more mainstream audience with 'Weaveworld'.
Ballard is a jolly man of ample girth who talks quietly but animatedly, bouncing around in what is obviously his favourite chair, a black leather swivel and tilt tub, cracked and scuffed with age.
Can this be the same man of whom a Cape reader, writing a report on 'Crash!', said "The author is beyond psychiatric help"? (Ballard incidentally, was delighted: "I took it to mean complete artistic success.")
Barker has the intensity of youth, declaiming his thoughts articulately and loudly, but he also has disarming charm.
Early on in the conversation, Ballard describes their trade with simplicity and eloquence: "We follow our obsessions, you and I, like stepping stones we see in front of us."
Barker immediately digs deeper. "It's extraordinary and very pleasurable to find that something has been drawn out in the act of writing whose roots I cannot find. Maybe that's a kind of surrealism."
Ballard laments the fact that because they work "in the field what some people would call 'the nasties,' but you and I would call the truth," some people expect them to be as deviant, perverse, aberrant and "have as strong a relish for the nasty as some of the character we write about." One isn't necessarily, he protests, what one writes.
"I have people coming here expecting the air to be heavy with the fumes of illicit substances, a miasma of child molesting, degradations... and in fact they find, I hope, a perfectly straightforward man who's brought up three children who are happy, successful adults. I think there is a complete separation between what one writes and imagines, and what one is."
Barker though, wonders whether "the blood and the flies and the car crashes and the perverse eroticism and the deviant stuff is in one important sense more truly me or you than the 'speech day' selves we present to the world."
"I could not," he goes on, "continue to re-work this kind of material unless it meant something more important to me than anything I could casually drum up as entertainment.
"One is a prism through which light falls, both from outside and from one's inner self, and is refracted outward into its various spectral bands in the form of one's fiction."
The talk turns to allegories and surrealism, and Barker wonders whether Ballard minds when reviewers read new layers of interpretation into his work.
"When people are not quite certain about a meaning in my books I don't feel obliged to offer an exact explanation. Once you begin to itemize too much you are effectively doing an autopsy on the corpse of the imagination. You should leave the reader to participate in the creative process."
The power of surrealism has an immediate impact like the flash of a camera, says Ballard, and no amount of staring at a painting will enrich it. "The fiction you and I write belongs in the same category."
Barker moves the conversation to a subject close to his heart and, it transpires to Ballard's too -- the pigeon-holing of an author into a genre.
They agree that it is important to publishers and booksellers to have books defined, but, says Ballard, it's a shame when an author is trapped by the genre.
Ballard suggests that what they write isn't SF, or fantasy, or horror, but 'imaginative fiction': "That is what most people enjoy reading without realizing. People like strong stories, strong characterization, large-scale events that transcend their ordinary suburban lives."
Together, Ballard and Barker castigate the mainstream novel, "which people enjoy reading and which has become more and more narrow." Barker gives it a generic title, 'Adultery on Campus', and Ballard satirizes the typical mainstream plot: "George and Mildred live in Highgate; he's a securities dealer; she teaches at the local comprehensive; and they have problems!"
Later Ballard returns to the theme with renewed vigour when, perhaps encouraged by the younger man's loquaciousness and gently probing questioning, he gives vent to a remarkably candid, and somewhat liverish, attack on the "London literary establishment."
The years of being denied as a SF writer, it seems, have left their mark and have not been appeased by the wider success of 'Empire of the Sun'.
"There is a sort of climate of perceived opinion in literary circles which, whenever I come into contact with it, makes me realize how much of an outsider I really am," says the man in the Shepperton semi whose 'Empire of the Sun' sold getting on for 500,000 copies in the U.K. alone.
"I feel exactly the same way a painter must have felt in the Thirties, Forties or Fifties when they were not being recognized for what they were when they moved in the corridors of the conventional art establishment."
"One feels an instant sense of one's imagination grating against, without being arrogant, what one feels to be a lot of mediocrities -- one may as well be arrogant and say it -- mediocrities puffed up with enormous self-esteem. What amazes me is to find this not just self-esteem but this absolute confidence in what constitutes excellence in the serious novel which has largely been responsible for the decline in the reading of so-called mainstream fiction between 1950 and 1980, and the gradual rise of what used to be called genre fiction to even greater popularity."
This triggered Barker to air his own irritation at the way in which "many of the qualities of imaginative literature have been usurped by mainstream authors, without ever accepting or tipping their hat to the source."
Ballard agrees: "Mainstream writers have begun to use elements taken from SF in a way not conceivable thirty years ago."
Barker broadens the debate to rail against the critics for thinking that imaginative fiction is escapist "when in fact it is confrontational. They think it is easy because there are no ground rules; in fact it is more difficult because there are far more rules...you've got to make it work on a profounder level."
We live in imaginatively impoverished times, says Barker, with 16 million people a night "watching TV shit that reduces everything to a kind of pap." But the critics, who should be helping the vast potential readership into imaginative books, "are in fact the first barricade."
Once started on critics, Barker is difficult to stop: "I don't read reviews now because they just annoy me so much. I don't read the Sundays, it's tomorrow's chip paper anyway and one should not concern oneself with the trivial opinions of trivial minds, but they do shape the sale of movies, theatre tickets, books.
"I don't give a fuck about the critics, but I do want the readers. If I could just get them to read my stuff and *then* they think it's a bunch of shit, then fine. But if they aren't given a chance..."
On a happier note, we talk at length of Ballard's 'The Day of Creation', variously described in preview quotes as "mesmerizing" (William Boyd), "phantasmagoria" (Doris Lessing) and "metaphysical" (Angela Carter).
Set against the backdrop of civil war in Central Africa, it is the story of a man's search for himself and the source of a river which he sees apparently miraculously "invented" as a tree stump is wrenched from the ground. It is also the story of his ripening obsession with the adolescent Noon, and his involvement with a gaggle of richly diverse characters on his journey to the source of the river.
Barker admires the book immensely and asks Ballard if he did a lot of research into how rivers grow.
"I *should* say 'yes,'" Ballard confesses, "that I walked along thousands of miles of watercourses and foothills of the Effendi, or whatever. But in fact I go for a walk every day down by the Thames and I think in many ways the Mallory [River] is the Thames.
"If you walk along a familiar patch of ground you begin to see a thousand and one things that other people don't notice. You recognize individual weeds and greet them like old friends. So in some ways the Thames fired my imagination. I didn't have to do a lot of research because in a sense it is an invented river."
Barker describes it as classic imaginative writing because it starts in a place that is concretely described, but by the end of the book "Mallory is in another world, a sort of no man's land." Along the way, says Barker, there is an elaborate weaving of sexuality and paradox in Mallory's desire to have the girl Noon and destroy the river.
Mallory is a doctor who has never practised medicine and his refusal to do so is the key to everything that follows, says Ballard. "Noon, the girl, provides the key which taps his imagination. We all pay lip service to the idea that we shape our own lives according to sensible long-term plans, but that's not the case.
"We are swayed powerfully by forces that suddenly erupt in our plans -- we may marry someone, end a marriage, embark on an unexpected career -- there are deep currents beneath the surface and every so often we pull an old tree trunk out of the ground and this 'gush' takes place."
In 'The Day of Creation', Mallory is drawn by an obsession with a river; in Barker's 'Weaveworld', the main character, Mooney, is drawn to an old house in Liverpool where he becomes obsessed with a carpet in which he sees a world taking shape.
There are obvious parallels, and as the Ballard/Barker conversations draw to a close, it transpires that both were significantly influenced at an early age by 'Peter Pan', surely the ultimate in imaginative literature.
Barker recalls with nostalgia *being* one of the lost boys at the age of six or seven ..."I can still see the images." And Ballard talks dreamily of the mysteriousness of the other children growing into adults as Peter Pan stays forever young..."It's very, very odd; it touches the heart profoundly."
From Delvaux's 'The Rape' to J. M. Barrie. We've come a long way during a morning in suburban Shepperton.