NEWS FROM THE SUN
(FOR J. G. BALLARD’S READERS)
This is the second issue of a newsletter for enthusiasts of J. G. Ballard's work. It is larger than the first issue and is being produced in greater quantity. My thanks to everyone who responded to the first issue and made me feel that it was worthwhile producing this second one. Keep the letters coming!
THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF ‘HELLO AMERICA’...
Ballard's latest novel, Hello America, was published by Jonathan Cape on Thursday 4th June 1981. His American hardcover publishers -- Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, who have previously issued High-Rise, The Best Short Stories of J.G.B., and The Unlimited Dream Company -- have rejected the book. As far as I know, it has not yet been taken by any other publisher in the USA. Could it be, just possibly, that the American publishers (sensitive, patriotic souls, no doubt) find the novel a teensy-weensy bit offensive...?
Hello America is certainly not one of Ballard's major works, but then it was not intended to be. It was originally commissioned as a novella, to be published in a large-format illustrated edition by the late lamented Pierrot Books. However, the manuscript grew, Pierrot went bust, and Cape found themselves with another full-length Ballard novel. As any reader with more than half a wit can perceive, the book is intended as a light entertainment: it's a romp, a comedy. It can scarcely be judged by the same yardsticks as The Unlimited Dream Company. Few of the reviewers have appreciated that, though. As Ballard remarked to me in a letter (14th June): “Of course it's meant to be a comedy - some of the reviewers seem to think I was trying to write Heart of Darkness.”
Let's take a look at the critical response:
“A Disservice to the Human Race.”
The first review I saw (prior to publication!) was a stinker. In The Spectator, 30th May, Paul Ableman wrote: “Mr Ballard has no interest in things like personality, pain, consciousness, ambition, love or any of the other central concerns of classical fiction.” He compares the novel to a comic book, and concludes with this preposterous paragraph: “The morality of a work of literature is not, in my opinion, the proper concern of a reviewer. Mr Ballard is entitled to seek the bubble -- sales -- even in the vortex of the mushroom cloud but, by the same token, I feel justified in stating my opinion that the breezy attitude to nuclear weapons which informs this book can only enhance their sinister glamour and thus constitutes a disservice to the human race.”
He says this of the author of “The Terminal Beach”! One fumes... I am a member of CND and no doubt just as much opposed to the use of nuclear weapons as Mr Ableman, but I fail to understand what he is on about. Moreover, it seems to me his review of Hello America reeks of envy -- envy of Ballard’s status, that is. He gives us the following revelatory anecdote: “Some years ago, for reasons which now elude me, I visited a pop concert where an amplified voice kept bawling aggressively that we would shortly be addressed by ‘the greatest writer in the whole world, Jimmy Ballard’. Well, I can now reveal, at lower amplification, that he isn't.”
I've no idea what event Ableman refers to, and, irritatingly, he doesn't tell us whether or not Ballard was in fact present (it seems unlikely to me), but this little tale reveals a meanness of spirit on Ableman's part. How many writers are touted at rock concerts? How many authors are written about or interviewed in pop-music papers? How many middle-aged novelists are capable of communicating meaningfully with a rebellious youth audience? Vanishingly few, one suspects.
To the extent that Ballard does get through to that audience (and see the item on “Warm Leatherette” elsewhere in this news-sheet) I think that it represents a marvellous achievement, a boon for literature as a whole, for literacy and books, for the imagination. Everyone who cares for the written word ought to cheer. Instead Paul Ableman makes sour carping noises. He is a novelist himself: perhaps he feels hard-done-by. Perhaps he's envious.
“A Consistent and Unmistakable View of the World...”
The second review I saw was Robert Nye’s in The Guardian on publication day, 4th June. Nye was obviously a bit embarrassed: Bill Webb had probably asked him to write a major piece on Ballard (he had also commissioned a cartoon portrait of JGB by David Smith -- it shows him wearing a broken crown and holding aloft Liberty's torch). Nye presumably agreed, then found himself confronted with Hello America, a minor novel and a comic one to boot. He tries to do the decent thing, and reviews Ballard's career, more or less competently; then, casting about for something to say, he comes up with an extremely strained argument -- J. G. Ballard, he claims, is a modern avatar of Edmund Spenser?
“He is not a masterpiece man. Instead, he offers a consistent and unmistakable view of the world, expressed in one book after another, an alternative reality, strange yet coherent. A critic trying to indicate this coherence runs the risk of sounding pretentious. I take that risk by comparing Ballard to Edmund Spenser, whose The Faerie Queene appears to me to have done something similar for the world as perceived by an Elizabethan Englishman. Spenser eschewed brilliance in providing a sort of garden which was greener than either reality or Arcadia. Ballard cannot write as well, but that is his game too, unless I am gravely mistaken.”
Well, I'm afraid you are being pretentious, Mr Nye, and you're quite possibly gravely mistaken. What on earth does The Faerie Queene have to do with a contemporary comic novel which attempts to explode the myths of a Reagan-haunted* America? Ballard doesn't deal in Arcadias, in whatever tortuous sense Nye intends the term. He is writing about the real world (unless I am gravely mistaken).
For the rest, Nye's is a generous review -- although he points out that “none of Ballard's characters provides an adequate comic vehicle, so he is driven to providing the comedy at their expense,” which is probably true enough. But Nye has to conclude his review this way: “... this is a very clever fiction, and -- yes -- another amazing improvisation on Ballard's basic theme. What is that theme? The same as Edmund Spenser's. That the world has run its time and man has had it, hurrah. The hurrah is the point, if you want a point, though to tell the truth the writing is enough.” Which leaves one rather bewildered and with the sneaking suspicion that, though he means well, Robert Nye just doesn't understand Ballard.
I've only covered two reviews of Hello America and am already running out of space. The rest of this survey will have to wait until the third news-sheet.
Phrase “Reagan-haunted” courtesy of John Clute, who has also provided me with part of the following news item:
RONALD REAGAN RIDES AGAIN
John Sladek and Pamela Zoline are apparently intending to revive Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry, since the times seem appropriate. This little magazine, of fond memory, ran for two issues in the late 1960s.
The first issue, which came out in the summer of 1968, contained Ballard's “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. The piece was reprinted in booklet form by the Unicorn Bookshop, Brighton, run by the late Bill Butler. The bookshop was raided by the police and copies of the Ballard item, among other things, were seized. A court case followed.
I remember reading in a newspaper at the time (probably late in '68) that one of the “obscene” articles mentioned by the prosecution was “a book with a four-letter word in the title by the American (sic) science-fiction writer J. G. Ballard.” As far as I know, this is the only time that Ballard has ever been cited in a court case for obscenity. (The case went against the Unicorn Bookshop; copies of the Ballard booklet are now rare.)
I no longer have that news-cutting. Does anyone else have press-cuttings pertaining to the Unicorn/Ronald Reagan incident? I'd be grateful for photocopies.
As a footnote, you may be amused to know that “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” was reprinted in 1980 by the Republican Party. Apparently, during Presidential Election years, the Grand Old Party reprints all media material pertaining to its candidate -- presumably as briefing for party workers. I've seen a copy of the document, which is in John Wolfers’s possession. It reprints the Ballard piece almost in its entirety, but sans the title -- I wonder why they left that out?
Perhaps John Sladek and Pamela Zoline can prevail upon Ballard to write a Ronnie-revisited piece for their revived magazine.
ANGRY OLD MAN
Kingsley Amis's bumper anthology of old sci-fi, The Golden Age of Science Fiction (just published by Hutchinson), reprints Ballard's “The Voices of Time”. Which is nice. But Amis's introduction contains some very disapproving remarks about Crash and later JGB works. Thus the wrist-slapping continues: naughty boy, Jim!
LETTERS ON ‘WARM LEATHERETTE’, ETC
Thanks for the unexpected but welcome NEWS FROM THE SUN...
Certainly agree with you that “The Air Disaster” would surely have fitted into Jim's new collection. By the way, I reprinted it in French in my Catastrophe anthology (Marabout, 1977) as "Catastrophe" (translation by me) and it drew very good reviews. Have many spare copies of the book if you're interested.
Yes, the Grace Jones “Warm Leatherette” is certainly reminiscent of Crash; I've just listened to it and here are some facts. The song was written by Daniel Miller and before being used by Grace Jones in her album of the same name (Island ILPS 9592- released 1980) was recorded by Miller himself with his group The Normal on the B-side of a single called TVOD. Miller is also behind the humorous electronic group The Silicone Teens and produces current popsters Depeche Mode.
Lyrics go as follows:
“Warm Leatherette (repeated three times)
See the breaking glass see the underpass (repeated once)
Warm Leatherette (repeated three times)
Hear the crushing steel feel the steering wheel (repeated twice)
Warm Leatherette”(repeated three times)
After that the song speeds up and it would take time to jot it down from the record. There are mentions of hand brakes penetrating thighs and “let's make love before we die” and police sirens at the end. Yes, very Crash!
Jim is a major influence on many so-called “new wave” writers and over the years the number of times he's been referred to by interviewees in NME has been quite staggering. One group, the Comsat Angels, took their moniker from his story in fact.
The other day, I read about an adaptation by an avant-garde composer of “The Sound-Sweep”, but can't remember where I saw it, having spent three days catching up on almost sixty magazines (music, film, literary, etc....)
-- Maxim Jakubowski, Finchley Lane, London
Dear Mr Pringle
Please send me my J. G. Ballard Fan Club Membership Kit, including “I Shot JFK” badge, “Try Crashing with Elizabeth Taylor” bumper sticker, and Media Landscape Codebook... Thank you for the David Pringle Promotions Newsletter… it's the first fanzine I've ever seen which has anything to do with the original meaning of “fan”, by the way.
Yes, Grace Jones made "Warm Leatherette" famous, but it was originally by a minimalist “band” whose name, tho' I rack my brain, I have forgotten. The lyrics are extremely appropriate (one of those haunting old-time ballades...), like “Hear the breaking glass/In the underpass,” etc. -- there are only about half a dozen lines, if that. Also check Joy Division’s “The Atrocity Exhibition” (I keep meaning to, but still haven't heard it), and anything by The Comsat Angels. Their lyrics and imagery owe nothing much to the man, but the mood of the songs is spot on: the sombre pleasures of alienation (this phrase © Colin Greenland, 1981). Two albums, Waiting for a Miracle (with Concrete Island-ish cover photo of motorway Western Avenue) and Sleep No More, plus a few singles, one of them “The Eye of the Lens”. For my money, the best Ballard song remains “Always Crashing in the Same Car” on Bowie's Low.
-- Colin Greenland, c/o The SF Foundation, NELP, Longbridge Rd., Dagenham
Thanks, Maxim and Colin. That's the end of NEWS FROM THE SUN (FOR J. G. BALLARD'S READERS) No. 2. I hope to produce a third issue in a few weeks time -- it will be dated “Christmas 1981”. Anyone who has responded to the first issue or to this one will receive a copy. Please send me your Ballard news and snippets. Send me a 14p stamp if you can’t think of anything else to say. I’ll presume that anyone who keeps mum just ain't interested...