J.G. Ballard on modernism

Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic—their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. The ‘self’ lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses.

Is this quote from Ballard’s autobiography (which I found in a review of it here) anything more than an appeal to return to realism? To be sure, it would be a psychotic realism, to fit the times: the self fragmentary, collapsed, elided. What Lukács termed bourgeois realism, for all the breadth of its world-historical perspective (with characters, rather than the generalised “self”, at the centre) indeed seems inadequate to our bizarre day-to-day. Genre fiction’s looseness relative to high realism, by letting it off the hook of offering a coherent vision of this labyrinth, may allow room for the unconscious to reveal itself and in that way be a truer reflection of whatever is out there. It is also a licence for self-indulgence and escapism. But its formulaic elements (detectives, spaceships …) aren’t a deficiency; these just allow the author to get on with his real business instead of trying to be Tolstoy. In a few cases, as with Ballard, they may simply be elided. Viewing the world as a “psychological construct” is as radical as that idea once seemed when applied to the self, and in retrospect, just as compelling. At bottom self and world are two perspectives on their intersection.
To put it quite differently, maybe genre fiction is a way of writing about the present, whereas realism’s true object is a past recent enough to be remembered (to have formed the author) but now distant enough to be understood as a period. The difference in feel is hard to sense once the author’s time of writing has receded into our own past, in which perspective it may look similar to narrated time. The higher calling of genre fiction — its “genre” in the classical sense — would then be satire: time and place are transposed not just for the benefit of the censor, but to purify the narrative of any preachy or merely documentary aspect and let imagination free.

  1. Somewhere I read a striking critique of the so-called literary or non-genre novel. It traced the origins of the phenomenon in the postwar publishing boom and analyzed the way that its underlying ideology serves the interests of the idle rich. I think it is true to say that such novels tend to be rooted in the recent past and to be memorial or nostalgic in nature. As the past moves on into the 60s, 70s and 80s, this will probably change. Already is changing, in fact…

  2. I’m reminded of the frame, that is, the literary device by which what is recounted is situated firmly in another time or place, from Plato’s dialogues to Joseph Conrad. Although this should be distinguished from the flashback (which goes back to Homer and Virgil), considerable care is often lavished on the frame, which may be at a remove of its own from the authorial present. There must be shelvesful of scholarly treatements of the frame, but my two cents’ worth is that it has to do with creating a nostalgic or otherwise personally felt connection between reader and narration. In the case of the epic flashback, that must also have been the case, because oral narration orally narrated would have created cosy reflections around the fire, allowing the experience of Dido’s welcome or Odysseus amongst his hosts to rub off on the actual audience. In both those cases, it also permitted extended first-person narration, but that really is wandering from the point.

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