My enjoyment of eulogies for J. G. Ballard, like this one in the Guardian on the 5th anniversary of his death, is always tempered by a sense of bitterness. For I can’t help feeling some resentment at the way the literary world now embraces this writer who was considered infra dig when I devoured everything he wrote 40 years ago. Even as a callow and barely literate teenager, I had a sense – which I could never then have articulated – that his works were far more relevant a window on the modern (by then almost postmodern, I suppose) age than the majority of works celebrated by what I now imagine was a literary community of a largely Leavisite mindset. Deborah Levy has it quite right in this article that the classification of Ballard as “science fiction” was really an attempt to tame and marginalize a writer who was too edgy, strange and visionary for that kind of sensibility. I think young Ballardians like me could intuit that writers like Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and most of all Ballard were working in a different kind of genre from Asimov and Clarke, and that the superficial sci-fi traits that some of them used from time to time were merely tools that suited their ulterior purpose. I surely read books like The Atrocity Exhibition with as threadbare a set of cultural references as I brought to my uncomprehending forays on Dostoevsky, having no real notion of who this Ralph Nader and Ronald Reagan were (that was the 1970s) and little idea of why Jackie Kennedy represented much more than a dead president’s wife (specifically, the harbinger of the modern age of celebrity). In short, a lot of it went right over my head. But I read on, feeling I suppose that this stuff was going to matter, that it was worth more than the values of the day seemed to allow.
What has changed, I suppose, is that the literary community is now populated by folks from a similar time and attitude as mine – Self, Kunzru, Mieville – for whom that kind of “speculative fiction” was as valid as the old, approved canon. I think this is progress. But it would be foolish to imagine that they too, we too, are not now overlooking and snobbishly dismissing writers who will turn out, in retrospect, to be the true prophets of our times.