The Nonfiction of J.G. Ballard: An interview with editor Mark Blacklock

The Arthur C. Clarke Award
9 min readDec 3, 2023

J. G. Ballard was a colossal figure in English literature and an imaginative force of the twentieth century.

Often positioned as the flip side of the coin to writers like Sir Arthur C. Clarke (although we’d argue they perhaps had more in common than is popularly assumed…) and with seminal novels including The Drowned World and Crash through to the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun and the increasing prescient Kingdom Come, Ballard was a sought-after reviewer and commentator, publishing journalism, memoir, and cultural criticism in a variety of forms.

The Selected Nonfiction of J. G. Ballard collects the most significant short nonfiction of Ballard's fifty-year career, extending the range of the only previous collection of his nonfiction, A User's Guide to the Millennium (1996), which selected essays and reviews published between 1962 and 1995.

Clarke Award director Tom Hunter (himself an avowed Ballardian) spoke to collection editor and author Mark Blacklock about the project:

TOM HUNTER: How did this book come about, and how does it differ from / build upon Ballard’s own nonfiction User’s Guide?

MARK BLACKLOCK: The idea came about when I was sitting in the British Library trying to think of what to do during a strike. A couple of years previously I’d stumbled across Ballard’s excellent catalogue essay on Robert Smithson in his archives at the BL when I was writing about a Tacita Dean exhibition. Ballard had corresponded with Dean about A Spiral Jetty and sent her a copy of his essay, because it had previously only been published in this obscure catalogue. During the strike I started wondering about how much else was out there that was obscure or uncollected. There was everything published after A Users’ Guide which wrapped up to about late 96/early 97, for a start. So I started compiling a bibliography and had nearly 200 items when I realised that David Pringle’s bibliography had already been published in a book that was sitting on my shelves — the catalogue for the excellent exhibition Crash at the Gagossian in 2010. I cross-referenced and realised I had one or two small pieces that had evaded even David, but that his bibliography had about thirty I’d not managed to find, and that roughly half of the nonfiction had come after A User’s Guide. I was sure from my own work that a book that brought this material together would be useful. So I put together a proposal and asked the estate if they’d consider letting me do it, and they thankfully gave permission.

In the final collection roughly 70% is previously uncollected. It was inevitable that there would be considerable overlap with A User’s Guide, but the main aim was to organise it so that it would be accessible to new readers. I really wanted anyone to be able to access his remarkable thought and analysis, so some of the big differences are the contextual introductions, the index and the bibliographies. But as I say, I wanted it to be accessible, so while it has these mechanical bits they’re written for a general reader and not an academic. I hope!

TOM: How difficult was it to gather all the materials, and then when gathered to select what made it in and what needed to land back on the cutting room floor?

MARK: It took a while, but I have to say I do really enjoy that kind of detective work. I wanted to restore everything to the version in which it was first published, and because the pieces in A User’s Guide had been edited, that meant going back to source. pdfs of the entire run of New Worlds are available digitally, which was very helpful. I had to download reviews from across the spectrum of broadsheet newspaper archives: he wrote for everyone over time, and they’re all archived on different databases, so a lot of cleaning up to do! There was a considerable amount of library work to track down out-lying pieces published in one-off paperbacks, fanzines or defunct magazines: Woman Journalist take a bow. A few judicious ebay purchases of things even the libraries didn’t have. Inquiries to former agents and friends, that kind of journalistic work. And finally, the community of Ballardian collectors, who were great and very helpful — David Pringle provided the original English version of Ballard’s Graham Greene appreciation, and a couple of hard-to-find intros had been published in Rick McGrath’s Deep Ends series. All-in-all it took a few years, but it was a great project to have over lockdowns.

Once it was all gathered, my first instinct was to include everything, but wiser counsel prevailed: it would have been unmanageable. I made sure to include anything significant that had been ignored for A User’s Guide or turned up since — the Introduction to the French Edition of Crash, for example, which I think he felt was not for a general audience; all the commentaries on his own work that had appeared in forewords and introductory glosses; and a sample of the reviews he wrote for Chemistry & Industry at the start of his career. I cut the number of book reviews that make up the majority of A User’s Guide too, in favour of showing a greater range of his work — the lists and glossaries, the “capsule commentaries.” The major decisions then were over which of the book reviews to include, because he was so prolific as a reviewer. I have about 30 of some 180. I printed them all off, read them several times and gave them all star ratings and then selected from the top-starred for a representative range across dates and publications. This felt like quite a heavy responsibility, but all the reviews are included in the bibliography so geeks like us can go and find those that aren’t in the book.

TOM: One key difference between this and User’s guide, of course, is that you’ve collected pieces from after that initial work was published. Given you had access to Ballard’s nonfiction across the range of his career have you noted changes or evolutions to his thinking or interests or is it more a case of him refining his ideas to a sharpened crystal edge?

MARK: Themes and interests remain remarkably focussed: indeed, one way of categorising I considered before using mode of writing and publication context was by theme: surrealism, technology, media, celebrity, the future, sex, China, WW2, Hollywood, pop art, cars, violence. Burroughs, Dali, Freud. The Cote D’Azure. And the even more focussed images and ideas that recur all the way through his work: drained swimming pools, gated communities, downed and doomed pilots and astronauts. Even at the level of language and slogans: “the future will be boring,” or “the next five minutes.” There was a career-long consistency of interests. And what’s remarkable is that he develops and hones this thought, and applies it in different contexts — so yes, I’d say he’s definitely refining, but it’s essentially a way of thinking that is built on predicates: that civilisation is a veneer that can be easily stripped away, that we project and enact our fantasies through technology, and, basically, the Freudian insight — unconscious drives are apparent everywhere and we prefer not to recognise them.

I think there is a tonal shift: what is undeniably true is that his work in New Worlds, and his SF reviews of the 60s and early 70s, have more of an axe to grind. He was out to change the genre, with Moorcock, so what they were doing was polemical, and what did not fit with the programme could come in for amusingly harsh treatment. His falling out with Kingsley Amis crops up a couple of times in reviews. While later in his career he doesn’t need to go head on. Which is not to say that he’s any less astute, just slightly mellower in approach. But also, tied into that, he clearly has terrific fun with the media opportunities afforded him by his status post-Empire of the Sun, when he’s in all the broadsheets, all the time, as a talking head. But he never just dials it in. He’s always brilliantly Ballard.

TOM: One thing that’s always struck me about Ballard’s nonfiction is how effortlessly evocative it is. For example, personally, I remember first reading his New Worlds La Jetee review way before seeing the film itself (indeed it’s how I discovered it) and still being transported by his own description of the film so much I felt I could probably deliver a short lecture on it without having seen the original.

My two-part question is 1. How do you think he did this, and 2. Which pieces in the collection especially resonate for you?

MARK: I agree completely, I can lose myself in his writing. How he does it is the question, isn’t it? He’s very thorough, even meticulous, so always well-researched and observant: see his long New Worlds piece on surrealism, ‘Salvador Dali: The Innocent as Paranoid’, for an example of a quasi-scholarly depth of engagement with his subjects. He’s a brilliant stylist, and one trick he uses repeatedly is the opening question, which really draws the reader in. Indeed, it’s a very smart gambit, because they’re genuine questions, asked of the work and of the reader, so not tiresome as properly rhetorical questions can be. You get the sense that you’re being invited into his curiosity. And then there’s the fact of his uniquely imaginative cast of mind: that underpinned by those intellectual premises outlined above, means that he’s able to offer richly formulated and accessible cultural analysis.

I really would draw attention to the Smithson essay, which I think is incredible. The Introduction to the French Edition of Crash is massively important for understanding his work and its transformations — track his responses to Crash through the index for an interesting journey. I love all the incantatory list-like pieces and particularly the ur-form of these: What I Believe. I was really glad, and unsurprised, that Tom McCarthy also really loves that. It’s a powerful credo for the power of the imagination.

TOM: Building on that last question, what is it that draws you to Ballard and / or his work personally? Do you have a favourite or favorite works? Which book was your first encounter?

MARK: I’m an obsessional reader, and The Atrocity Exhibition was what really hooked me onto Ballard, because it’s the Rosetta Stone of his obsession and rewards obsessives endlessly. I’d been reading his late fiction as it came out — I first read Cocaine Nights when I picked it up in an airport in my early twenties — I think that was the idea with those books, that they were disguised as holiday reads for unwary tourists but were in fact surrealist depth charges. I love Kingdom Come as the pinnacle of those works. I love Running Wild as an oddity, a novella with illustrations. I love the modesty of Miracles of Life.

I think my favourite now is possibly The Unlimited Dream Company. It’s just an astonishing achievement. I have not encountered another book that so achieves a beautiful and compellingly lush dreamscape, entirely governed by the logic of dream and yet almost entirely unputdownable.

TOM: How much more nonfiction material is there? Can we demand your publisher release a volume 2?

MARK: There are all the outstanding book reviews — 150 or so. A bunch more capsule commentaries — those would make a brilliant pamphlet: Ballard the talking head, or Ballard: the fax questionnaires. Outside of that, I managed to squeeze pretty much everything in, but there are one or two longer bits that ended up on the cutting room floor. (I think I’m going to try for that pamphlet!)

I’ve also thought that a collection devoted to the hybrid, uncategorisable experiments, would be a very useful complementary work. I’d like to do that one too!

TOM: And finally, in your professional opinion, does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?

MARK: The hypotenuse of a neural interval is quite clearly equal to the tender pleasures of a raked thigh. There’s no doubt.

Mark Blacklock is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of the cultural history The Emergence of the Fourth Dimension, and his most recent novel Hinton was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2021.

Tom Hunter is director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award science fiction book of the year. His favourite Ballard novel is (currently) Concrete Island.



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