J.G. Ballard, Taboos and Other Stuff

Arriving on the desk this morning (as well as some free stuff! Thanks, Michael!) was a copy of J.G. Ballard’s THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION.

I had read a couple of these stories—’You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race’—in a couple of old New Worlds obtained on one of the many Solaris recces to the second hand bookstores of Nottingham. (Think three geeks going mad for pungent paperbacks, elbowing each other out of the way for anything that’s rare, and spilling blood if it’s a first edition.) I sense a Big Ballard Phase coming on, and will be hitting the Amazon marketplace this lunch hour to buy a stack of his stuff to read.

I find it remarkable that there was such an outrage when THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION was published—obscenity trials, print runs being destroyed etc. Aside from the controversy, it was a remarkably experimental work, establishing Ballard's literary reputation. It’s hard to think of anything like that happening today in the publishing world. But also, it makes me wonder if publishing is more conservative today—or is it that the market demands more conservative titles. Sales are extremely important; this is a business after all. Maybe there is a need to stick with what’s safe. On the other hand, are there many taboos left in SF? Surely such a speculative field has mined as much as it can on this front. Perhaps all the frontiers have been pushed, which is why there is so little controversy these days. If a modern equivalent of Ballard’s early writing arrived on desks across the publishing world today, would many go for it? I doubt that much of what went in the New Wave of SF would be accepted by mainstream press in the modern publishing world, which is a shame.

And although it’s after 9/11 now, National Geographic has these remarkable photos to mark the day.

— Mark N

6 comments:

David Barnett said...

I think it's either ironic or paradoxical that, despite SF's reputation for envelope-pushing, the industry today wouldn't take a chance on Ballard's stuff if presented to mainstream publishers now. Maybe "literary" or "contemporary" fiction would, though - maybe the same kind of people who take on David Mitchell etc.

The Solaris Team said...

Perhaps that's true, David—and perhaps part of the problem is labelling a book as this or that, SF or fiction. There's not much we can do about that. Maybe some stories of the New Wave would be labelled as fiction these days, and would be published there. Much of Fiction is leaning over into what would once be known only as SF—Ishiguru's NEVER LET ME GO, for one. But that's a whole different debate on which section to put a book in, and I wouldn't want to open that door…

—Mark N

David Barnett said...

Me neither. Half of me would like to see bookshops file everything under "fiction" (apart from non-fiction, of course...) so there's no prejudice or narrow-mindedness, but on the other hand, how the hell would we find anything unless we had three days to browse. I suppose the nub of it is that publishers like SF/F books with mainstream crossover potential (as suggested by the move away from traditional SF cover art)but also like to file their stuff in a handy section so that the target readership can locate it.

The Solaris Team said...

Hi David, Mark. I don't think it's so much that publishers are taking books that should/could be published as science fiction and presenting them as mainstream novels (although there is some clear examples of that), but more that real life is catching up with themes and topics that used to be seen as exclusively SF. This then has a knock-on effect in contemporary literature. For example - I don't believe that NEVER LET ME GO could ever really be considered a true SF novel; it wasn't written from the perspective of a writer who knows the SF genre and the current trends within it, but more that Ishiguru is picking up on themes that are prevalent in the current news. Cloning is now a headline on the front of the Sunday broadsheets. It's not that Ishiguru's novel doesn't resonate with the SF genre; more that he didn't set out to write the book for genre readers, but, I believe, wrote the book from the perspective of someone documenting current affairs and contemporary issues. It's therefore fair to see this published as a mainstream novel, IMO. What does gall me is when writers who clearly ARE writing books for genre readers are then packaged as thriller writers in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. I honestly believe the net effect is quite the opposite; that many of the real fans are driven away by the look and tone of the packaging, instead turning to more traditional fare.

-George

The Solaris Team said...

Adding to that: for me, the Ishiguru is simply a case of 'Mainstream writer does SF; so it's not SF'. A simple, sales-based decision. Having read the novel, I drew indirect echoes to Christopher Priest's fiction, and even Tom Disch's CAMP CONCENTRATION. If Disch had written literary fiction up until that point, and CC was published today, what treatment would it get? For me, they are both great SF books. But that's the thing, isn't it—it's all very subjective.

—Mark

David Barnett said...

Hmm. Good points. I suppose there's also the feeling that many mainstream readers might not have read much SF so to have the tropes of the genre presented to them in "lit fic" form, no matter how basic or even hackneyed the usage, isn't considered a problem because they haven't had much exposure to them.

(That sentence lost the will to live about halfway through so apologies if I sound like a madman on the bus.)