Posts Tagged ‘J. G. Ballard’

The Completist – Authors I’ve Read Virtually Everything By

September 25, 2013 2 comments

Ah, lists. I love ’em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.

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Megan Abbott 

She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.

J. G. Ballard

He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.

Pat Barker

I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.

Raymond Carver

In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.

Raymond Chandler

Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.

J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.

Harry Crews

Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.

Philip K. Dick

What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.

Graham Greene

The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.

Barry N. Malzberg

Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.

Maureen McHugh

I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.

James Tiptree Jr.

In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.

Jeff Vandermeer

Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.

Daniel Woodrell

Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.

That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.

So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?

On Reading Literary Biographies

March 16, 2013 2 comments


I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?

I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.

Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.

The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan

The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson

Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka

Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman

Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin

Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick

Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden

Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger

James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips

In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.

“The Ballard” – First Place in “Book Love” competition

December 1, 2010 6 comments

I’m happy to report that my short-short story “The Ballard” has been awarded First Place in Fiction on Demand‘s “Book Love” competition. The prize, which should be lobbing in my postbox any day now, is both a copy of Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, and $25 which was donated by Amber Hunter of I had a lot of fun writing this 600 word  story, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it too.  I read and enjoyed one of Slatter’s stories in Sprawl, so I’m looking forward to getting into some more of her work. Expect to see my review in the near future. Thanks to Dan Simpson for running this and other writing competitions, and Amber Hunter for the prize. While I’m in the business of thanking people, thanks also to the now-deceased J. G. Ballard for writing the amazing stories that were the inspiration for my short piece in the first place.

Book Review – Kingdom Come by J. G. Ballard

Ballard has been on a long decline for decades now. Since the heady days of his seminal The Atrocity Exhibition, as well as arguably his best novels in High Rise and The Unlimited Dream Company, Ballard’s novels have been deteriorating almost imperceptibly. Perhaps this is somewhat unfair, but it’s how I feel. J. G. Ballard is one of the most important fantasists of the twentieth century, but his last important novel was Empire of the Sun, and that was published more than twenty years ago. The novels after Empire are of middling quality (The Day of Creation, Rushing to Paradise and The Kindness of Women, as well as the excellent novella Running Wild). But his work since then has been poor.

Ballard’s last four novels are often thought of as a thematic quartet, in that they all address the psychopathology of modern life. They are Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come. I can’t comment on the Millennium People, because I haven’t read it, but the other three are middling at best. Unfortunately, Ballard has made the mistake of many a successful writer before him: he has continued writing well into his seventies, even though he has long finished saying everything he ever wanted to say in fiction. And thus his books are repetitive and ‘samey,’ almost to the point of self-parody. But nobody is laughing in Kingdom Come.

It’s not that bad a book, really. If someone else had written it, it would be dismissed as a not-too-successful attempt to imagine the suburban upheavals of the future. It’s only that it has the name ‘J. G. Ballard’ on it that anyone has paid attention to what is basically a lightweight thriller. It’s about a grassroots, sports-loving, racist, St George shirt-wearing, consumerist revolution in the Heathrow Airport area of England. The protagonist, a forty-something ad man named Richard Pearson, comes into this area to investigate the murder of his elderly father at the Metro-Centre, a colossal shopping centre that inhabits the literal and emotional centre of this novel.

Characters were never exactly Ballard’s strength (consider the stereotypical and outdated characters in otherwise excellent novels like The Drowned World and The Crystal World), but now all his characters are cut from the same cloth as the book before, and the book before that. I can’t be bothered remembering the names of the key characters in Kingdom Come, as they aren’t especially memorable. We have: the strong but nervous lady doctor; the friendly and yet threatening psychologist; the enigmatic and authoritative shopping centre manager; the unstable and cryptic criminal mind; and the affable and vacuous television personality. And the plot, for the first half of the novel, basically consists of Pearson being shunted from one major character to another for an extended conversation, for no apparent reason other than that Ballard wanted these characters to speak in his novel. The plot is thin, but it does improve a little in the second half.

Unfortunately, Ballard has covered this material before. Kingdom Come main event, which consists of a hostage situation in the Metro Centre, echoes Ballard’s earlier Concrete Island and High Rise. The novel’s thesis is new, I suppose: that consumerism will eventually lead to fascism, and in turn to madness, but it isn’t very interesting or well argued. I read an recent interview with Ballard the other day in which he said that some of his recent novels were in fact extended short stories, and this is certainly true of Kingdom Come. This would probably work well at novella length, jettisoning the entire first section, but Ballard knows what his market is, and that is for novels.

Sadly, Ballard now has terminal prostate cancer, and at seventy-eight, needless to say, the prognosis is poor. He’s had a magnificent career, one that just about any writer should be envious of (I certainly am), but it’s all over now. The James Graham Ballard I will choose to remember will be the younger man who wrote stories like “The Voices of Time” and “The Drowned Giant,” as well as the aformentioned novels. Ballard is a giant of twentieth century literature, and he will be remembered for a long, long time. But it won’t be for what will probably end up being his last novel, Kingdom Come.

Book Review – Miracles of Life by J. G. Ballard

March 27, 2008 Leave a comment


Miracles of Life is J. G. Ballard’s recently published autobiography. I did not expect JGB to write an autobiography, and possibly he himself did not either, but the news that he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer changed his mind. I was very eager to read this book, and I am somewhat disappointed to say that it failed to live up to my expectations. JGB must surely be one of the greatest English writers of the 20th century – his novels The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash are close to the greatest novels of the century, as are his lesser known The Unlimited Dream Company and High-Rise. But Ballard, in his old age, has been in declining as a writer for something like fifteen years now. I found his later novels, Cocaine Nights and Super Cannes, to be of middling quality, and I have neglected to read Millennium People, and neglected even to purchase Kingdom Come. Ballard is, quite simply, past it, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given his age. To put his life in perspective, Ballard was born only two years later than Philip K. Dick, who died (of course) in 1982. Ballard will probably live to seventy-nine or eighty, which must seem like a reasonable innings.

OK, so what did I find disappointing about Miracles of Life? It is a combination of things. Firstly, there is nothing here that an avid JGB enthusiast (as I am) would not already know. Several sections read very similarly to things Ballard has said over the years in interviews. It is almost as if he has a ‘party line’ on his own life, and is quite content to reel it out. There is very little that is confessional, startling, or even particularly interesting here. There’s also a sort of veil of depersonalisation here. Ballard writes about his life so vacuously that it’s hard to imagine it meant much to him. He does come to life on a few issues: namely his time in the Lunghua prison camp, and in describing his apparently blissful relationship with his own children. But most of the rest of this reads quite limply indeed. It’s a shame, because this is pretty much the final word we’ll hear from Ballard, I suppose.

I’ve ran out of things to say. I’m sure that others will appreciate this book more than I, especially those who perhaps have not studied JGB’s life as closely as I have, but my reservations remain. Goodbye, James Graham Ballard. You are a truly great writer, and you will be remembered.