A BESTSELLING PAPERBACK
J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun was published in a British paperback edition by Granada (now Grafton Books) at the end of August 1985. A few weeks before publication I received a copy of a lavish publicity pack. It consisted of photographs, posters, stickers, review snippets, and a sheet which gave details of a “sensational TV ad campaign.” This last item promised that TV South (which covers the area in which I live) would carry twelve 30-second ads for the novel, from 9th September to 7th October, and that other ITV companies would have similar amounts of advertising. I kept my eyes open, but I'm afraid I failed to see a single one of the ads, Was the campaign cancelled at the last moment, or was I just unlucky? Did anyone else see any TV advertising for Empire?
Rumour had it that Granada were hoping to sell half a million copies of the book by the end of the year. In the event, it seems they didn't do quite that well but sales were nevertheless very creditable. According to Alex Hamilton's chart of “last year's 100 fastest-selling paperbacks” in the Guardian (6th January 1986) the Ballard novel sold 329,583 copies from August to December. It came 26th in the list of 100 bestsellers. (The 1984 Booker winner, Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, sold 221,072 and came 43rd.) A good performance!
NEW YEAR GREETINGS
Hello again, It's more of a personal fanzine than a newsletter this time, and we'll begin with a note from a reader:
My, how time goes by!… Lots of Ballard reissued in mass-market paperback here in the last few months -- though not any sign of that still-astonishing book Atrocity Exhibition, a gap that makes me seriously consider becoming a publisher... In looking through my files and rereading things I realized that JGB News had not appeared in my mailbox, and I hadn't heard from you in a while, so I thought I'd drop a line. The last I received, December 1984, has you signing off for a spell for the writing of a book -- how's it going? Any scan on resuming JGB News in the Near Future? I do enjoy reading it.
-- Thomas Frick, Cambridge, MA, USA
Indeed, it has been a long time -- a gap of thirteen months -- and I've received a number of letters from people who are keen to see another JGB News. If I haven't replied to you personally, apologies: please consider this as your reply. I haven't done a newsletter in over a year for several good reasons. Last winter I was preoccupied with the writing of my book, Science Fiction: the 100 Best Novels. I finished it in May 1985, and it was published fairly swiftly -- on 17th October of the same year. It was released by Xanadu Publications at £9.95 hardcover, £3.95 paperback, and four of the 100 novels discussed are by J. G. Ballard -- The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Crash and High-Rise. Moreover, I changed jobs in the spring of 1985: I ceased to be PA to the Director of Brighton Polytechnic (work which I detested) and took a “sideways shift” into an assistant librarian's post at Brighton College of Technology. I'm on the same pay but the work is easier and the atmosphere much more relaxed. I'm beginning to feel human again, Unfortunately, one minor loss involved in the job change is that I no longer have access to a double-sided photocopier -- the College of Technology being much less well endowed with hardware than Brighton Poly -- and that means I'm lacking one of the basic tools for the production of cheap newsletters.
However, as you've probably noticed, I'm now using a word processor to produce this copy. It doesn't replace the photocopier but it makes the writing of newsletters temptingly easy. I can keep the results on disc and print out “final” copies as and when I wish. For those of you who are interested, I'm using an Amstrad PCW8256, a new machine which has been selling very well in Britain over the past few months. It's amazingly cheap by past standards -- £450-odd for a 256K computer, keyboard, monitor, disc drive and dot-matrix printer, plus word-processing software, CP/M operating system, BASIC and LOGO. I played with one at work for a few weeks, then I decided to buy one for myself, paying for it out of the advance for my next (as yet unwritten) book.
Yes, I’ve been commissioned to write another book. This one will be about Famous Fictional Persons, and I must complete the manuscript by 31st December 1986…
The other reason I've been so damned busy is that my commitment to Interzone has grown. When the magazine began in early 1982 it had a team of eight equal co-editors; now there are two co-editors, an associate editor and various helpers. We find that this works better, but it has thrown a lot more responsibility onto Simon Ounsley and myself. We're still experimenting with the magazine and trying to reach a wider audience (tho' subscriptions have yet to pass the 1,000 mark). Recently we switched to full-colour covers and started using the dread words “Science Fiction” in a prominent position below the title. We've also begun to publish film reviews, interviews with authors and other small non-fiction features. All this is in an effort, not to go down market but to capture some sort of a market in the first place -- by which I mean a market over and above our nearly 1,000 subscribers. The fact of the matter is that the magazine has just not been selling in bookshops and newsagents -- a few hundred copies, perhaps, but not enough to make any distributor take us seriously. If Interzone is to continue publishing we must make those direct sales -- several thousand of them. Up until now we have been dependent on the Arts Council, who have guaranteed us against loss to the tune of £1,000 per issue. While we're grateful for that largesse it has made for an irritating, hand-to-mouth sort of existence. We have to reapply for money each spring, and every year we're uncertain what the response will be. So far they have been very generous, but there may come a day when they think that we’ve received enough.
We want to escape that financial threat. We want to become Britain's first viable science-fiction magazine in many a long year. A modest ambition, I think, and one which I still believe can be realized, given enough will-power, hard work and good luck. Interzone: The 1st Anthology (Dent, April 1985, £3.95) was well received, and has recently been sold to St Martin's Press in New York where it will probably be appearing as a hardcover later this year. That's very pleasing. It was also pleasing that Allan Sutherland picked it as one of his “books of the year” in a recent issue of City Limits. But these small successes are not enough: we have still to achieve High-Street credibility, and it's to that end we’re going for the colour covers, movie reviews, etc. I shall attach a recent Interzone flier to this issue of JGB News. As you’ll see it reproduces the cover of issue 13 on one side -- the issue in which we published Ballard's most recent short story, “The Man Who Walked on the Moon.”
JGB’S RECENT WRITINGS
In addition to the above-mentioned piece, he has also published a short story in Ambit during 1985 -- “Answers to a Questionnaire” -- and a review of another William Burroughs book in the Guardian. The most recent thing by him to see print is an introduction to a science-fiction short-story competition which appeared in the Sunday Times on 15th December. Ballard is one of the four judges of this competition, which is sponsored by the newspaper and Victor Gollancz Ltd. The other judges are Angela Carter, Sir Clive Sinclair and Malcolm Edwards.
There have also been several newly-published interviews, in Vogue, New Musical Express, Words and elsewhere. And of course a number of additions to the critical literature on Ballard. I’m thinking of publishing a little chapbook update to my J G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography some time during 1986. How many of the readers of JGB News would be interested in receiving this? I should have to charge a pound or two for it. It would contain details of all the critical items mentioned in past issues of this newsletter, plus a great deal more... Please write and let me know if you are interested. As ever, I should also be grateful for any bibliographical information which I may have overlooked: belated reviews of Empire of the Sun, out-of-the-way critical pieces on Ballard, obscure interviews, and so on particularly stuff which has appeared overseas. Clippings, photocopies and the like are always much appreciated.
A FEW AGEING LETTERS
Here are the photocopies I promised to send you and a list of items not included in the Ballard bibliographies... The long-awaited (?) Just the Other Day volume of essays on sf and utopias, including my essay on Ballard, is finally coming out (I hope) in November/December, I can send you a copy of my contribution when the offprints arrive (purely for your files, of course).
-- Jonathan Benison, Bassano del Grappa, Italy
Yes, please do send me that offprint, Jonathan. And thanks very much for the other stuff you sent in October -- Some of the items which Jon Benison has brought to my attention include a review of The Drowned World published in Chemistry and Industry in 1963 (that journal being the one for which Ballard worked as assistant editor from about 1957 until 1961); a profile of JGB which appeared in Luna Monthly in 1971; a new book by David Punter, The Hidden Script: Studies in Writing and the Unconscious (Routledge, 1985), which contains a chapter on Ballard: and sundry Italian items (would that I could read them).
I'm off for another session of teaching the Hungarians sf. I recently came across the following -- on the meaning of obsession as purpose in modern life -- and it reminded me greatly of one of your main points about Ballard in the talk you gave at Nice (the passage is from Lasch, Culture of Narcissism ):
“Imprisoned in his pseudo-awareness of himself, the new Narcissus would gladly take refuge in an idée fixe, a neurotic compulsion, a 'Magnificent obsession' -- anything to get his mind off his own mind. Even unreflecting acquiescence in the daily grind, as the possibility of achieving it recedes into the historical distance, comes to seem like an almost enviable state of mind. It is a tribute to the peculiar horror of contemporary life that it makes the worst features of earlier times -- the stupefaction of the masses, the obsessed and driven lives of the bourgeoisie -- seem attractive by comparison. The 19th-century capitalist, compulsively industrious in the attempt to deliver himself from temptation, suffered torments inflicted by inner demons. Contemporary man, tortured on the other hand by self-consciousness, turns to new cults and therapies not to free himself from obsessions but to find meaning and purpose in life, to find something to live for, precisely to embrace an obsession, if only the passion maitresse of therapy itself. He would willingly exchange his self-consciousness for oblivion and his freedom to create new roles for some form of external dictation, the more arbitrary the better. The hero of a recent novel renounces free choice and lives according to the dictation of dice: 'I established in my mind at that moment and for all time, the never questioned principle that what the dice dictates, I will perform.' Men used to rail against the irony of fate; now they prefer it to the irony of unceasing self-consciousness. Whereas earlier ages sought to substitute reason for arbitrary dictation both from without and within, the 20th century finds reason, in the debased contemporary form of ironic self-consciousness, a harsh matter; it seeks to revive earlier forms of enslavement. The prison life of the past looks in our own time like liberation itself.”
-- John Dean, Paris, France
Thanks for the interesting extract, John -- but, my, isn't it lofty. It reminds me of Matthew Arnold. I'm not pure that Ballard would subscribe to all that’s said therein, although the converse could well be true -- that Christopher Lasch could have got a lot of that sort of insight from reading Ballard’s fiction. In fact, we know that he's read Ballard. It was mentioned in the last of these newsletters that Lasch's later book, The Minimal Self (1984) contains analyses of JGB and William Burroughs. By the way, the reference in John Dean's letter to a talk I gave in Nice should be explained: in April 1985 I attended an sf conference at the University of Nice, having been invited there specifically to talk about Ballard. It was all great fun, and probably the only opportunity I'll ever get of an expenses-paid trip to the south of France. My talk was mainly about the theme of “obsession” in JGB’s fiction, although I can't claim to have come up with any great insights. The invitation to attend the conference was probably due mainly to Catherine Bresson, who has been writing a thesis on Ballard in the English Department at Nice. Thanks, Catherine.
Dear David Pringle:
You probably won't remember meeting me at North East London Polytechnic in 1978. I was then writing a MA thesis about Vermilion Sands and I wanted to get information about J. G. Ballard. I saw you twice at the SF Foundation. I eventually met Ballard in Shepperton. Then, back in France, I completed my MA thesis and got a First. Being now an English teacher in Lille, I got acquainted with Alain Garguir, the editor of a new sf magazine. Last year Garguir was given the responsibility to organize the 13th Convention Nationale de la Science Fiction, which is due to take place between September 4th and September 7th 1986, in Lille. It came to our minds that you would perhaps be kind enough to spread the information about this convention in Great Britain. We wrote a letter to J. G. Ballard, inviting him to the convention. He declined the invitation, because he is very busy. He is already working on a new novel. (That's a scoop.)
Patrick Lepetit, Lille, France
Certainly I remember you, Patrick. Glad to hear from you again. Best of luck with the convention.
I've heard from many other people in the last year, and I’II try to mention a few of them here. Chris Millar (Cream Ridge, NJ USA) writes: “I came across a lot of Ballard's American paperback books. I have most of the Berkley paperbacks and most of the anthologies he's included in, and a few of the magazines (the Playboys, Penthouse). If you or someone you know would like to work out a trade, just let me know.” Fabio Zucchelia (Pavia, Italy) writes: “I attend the 4th year of the foreign languages courses at the University of Pavia, and I intend to take the degree with a dissertation about J. G. Ballard. So I'm trying to collect all the material I can find about the subject -- bibliographies, critical studies, magazines and so on. I'd be very grateful if you could suggest texts of any interest for my work…” Peter Hiess (Vienna, Austria) writes: “Just to let you know: we made a one-hour radio program on Ballard. Hereby I send you the manuscript and playlist.” The latter is all in German; but for readers' information the date of transmission of the programme on Austrian radio was 23rd October 1985 -- it seems to have featured a great deal of music by Joy Division, the Comsat Angels and the like.
JGB was co-winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction last year. The person who was honoured with him was Angela Carter, for her Nights at the Circus. That's at least two awards Empire has won, the other being the Guardian fiction prize.) The afternoon play on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 13th March 1985 was “Venus Smiles” by Ballard, adapted by Michelene Wandor. Unfortunately, I missed it -- did anyone tape it?
Gregory Stephenson has an essay an JGB in the forthcoming issue of Foundation (no. 35). It's called “J. G. Ballard: The Quest for an Ontological Eden” and it takes a somewhat mystical approach. Peter Brigg's paper on Hello America (mentioned here some time ago) will be in the following issue of the same journal (out in the summer of '86). I've just heard from Brigg again: his small book on Ballard was published at last, towards the end of 1985, by Starmont House in the USA. I've yet to see it, but am looking forward to it considerably. Aside from the Re/Search special it will be the first book on JGB which isn't by me! Which reminds me: it was rumoured some months ago that critic Patrick Parrinder (known for his books on Wells, etc) is going to write a short critical book about Ballard's work for a leading British publisher. This has yet to be confirmed, but I hope it is the case...