‘Pretentious and Dull’: Celebrating Ballard’s Lone Stars

Negative reviews have long been something of an obsession of mine. Having grown up reading Melody Maker and the NME in the late 80s and early 90s, it was the out-and-out slatings that I found made the most entertaining reads. In many ways, these reviews were a leading factor in my deciding I wanted to become a music journalist. For the first reviewing job I applied for, which happened to be at my local paper, I sent a deeply scathing review of a recent gig I’d attended, because I felt it provided the best means of demonstrating my flair for description and finding creative ways of saying the bands were shit.

I was elated when the section’s editor rang me to tell me I’d got the ‘job’ (I say ‘job’ as it was unpaid, an ongoing feature of my reviewing career which now spans the best part of twenty years). My elation was countered by no small degree of horror when he went on to tell me he loved my submission so much he was going to run it.

It was a vital lesson in writing, and at a relatively tender age (I was about 18), namely that if you’re going to write something, you have to be prepared for people to read it. The paper received a number of letters of complaint, the first review to have elicited such a reaction in its entire history.

Still, it wasn’t the first time my writing had received complaints. A couple of years previous, during the summer holidays, I had produced a newsletter of sorts, a parodic ‘gossip column’ type affair about people from my school. It went by the title of ‘The Parish News’, and I simply printed up and posted out copies to various friends and people I knew. Unfortunately, one (female) recipient shared initials with her mother, who opened the correspondence, and, taking offence at the references to her daughters breasts, decided to call the police about this ‘offensive’ publication. They turned up at the back door while I was cleaning the porch for pocket money, and delivered some stern words. They couldn’t tell me who’d complained, of course, but I spotted one of the, coppers was holding the envelope they’d been handed by the complainant and read the address, and made the simultaneous discovery that bobbies aren’t always the brightest. They also told me in no uncertain terms that I was to cease the publication of ‘The Parish News’ or anything similar. I gave them my word and they went on their way. I was a lot more careful with the distribution of the subsequent three issues of the quarterly A4 one-pager.

Since then, very little’s changed in many respects. I learned quickly to develop a thick skin when it came to comments regarding my work, and for every detractor there are many protractors, and besides, I’m of the opinion that it’s better to be slated than ignored – although that doesn’t stop me bailing in, feet first with all guns blazing when I receive a particularly feeble or otherwise irksome CD in the mail. It’s good to let off steam to flex my muscles that are primed for serving up vitriol, and I still believe the bad reviews are the best.

Unfortunately, many reviews on the Internet, be they reader reviews or fan reviews or little blogs or zines, are extremely poorly written, and the one-star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., are nowhere near of the standard of the scathing reviews penned by good journalists who possess wit, humour and an extensive vocabulary. It was this strain of review that was a key inspiration for This Book is Fucking Stupid, and long before I decided to write / assemble the book, I’d developed the habit of skipping straight to the one and two star reviews of books or CDs I was considering buying. Sometimes I’d find myself embarking – unintentionally – on extensive one-star journeys, reading all the terrible reviews of books I’d read or by authors I like. And really, most of them are truly terrible. Invariably, it’s abundantly clear that the reviewer is only semi-literate, and needless to say they’ve generally missed the point of the book completely.

I’ve recently been on something of a Ballard trip, and it’s perhaps not surprising that despite the glowing critical reception his works have received, many ‘everyday’ readers have been less impressed. tvpunter’s comments on Amazon.co.uk concerning High Rise – a book I found powerful and quite affecting – are in many ways typical:

1.0 out of 5 stars WE-1984-, 8 May 2011

By tvpunter

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

That kind of novel that potrays the middle classes in turmoil as oppossed to the state controling the masses..a metaphor for today in 2011..did’t work for me.

Clearly, spelling ‘dos’t’ work for him either, and reviews like this reveal more about the reviewer’s deficiencies than the shortcomings of the book. The point is, I’m aware that Ballard is guilty of the occasional lumpy sentence and sometimes the action scenes are so hastily sketched it’s difficult to discern precisely what’s happened. Consider these features endearing, small imperfection that are essential to the unique style of Ballard’s writing. Therefore, while not all of his books have had the same effect on me as The Atrocity Exhibition, I nevertheless find myself marvelling at the way in which he constructs his narratives, and I’ve not once – thus far – found a Ballard book to be ‘disappointing’ – unlike Thomas Hunter of Banbury:

1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 11 Nov 2011

By Thomas Hunter (Banbury, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

This book started so well, painting a great picture of a realistic brave new world on the French Riviera, and setting up an intrigue that promised to blossonm into an exciting mystery. But then it all went wrong as implausibility piled on top of implausibility. JGB thought he was building tension but instead he was building incredulity, finishing off with a pathetic ending that made me think the whole experience had been a waste. My first Ballard and probably my last.

The one thing that’s always struck me about Ballard is his ability to signpost the future. The London Riots of August 2011 immediately brought to mind High Rise and Millennium People. But the trouble with writing the near future is that for many, it will seem far-fetched and improbable, in much the same way Smellgrovia finds aspects of Kingdom Come ‘silly’.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pale Imitation, 21 May 2007

By Smellgrovia (Blackheath, London)

This review is from: Kingdom Come (Hardcover)

I am a huge Ballard fan and so am sorry to say that I really did not enjoy this. I agree with other reviewers in feeling that Ballard has done this so much better in other novels such as Cocaine Nights. I thought the shopping mall run riot was silly at best, and I just could not get involved with the characters or plot. By the end I was skim reading just to finish the damn thing – never a good sign.

2.0 out of 5 stars gratuitous, 17 Nov 2010

By biskit

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

i knew this book was supposed to be alarming, thought provoking etc., but i didn’t bank on the feeling of impatience and horror. never one to abandon a book half way, i kept on through gritted teeth. I have since passed dwellings that have made me think of this book, but that can be its only legacy. a fear that the hell within this book could become reality is what makes one read on, but beware the same is true for other stories of the horror genre. this is not a convincing tale, people going to work as normal and then setting up war zones in their own block of flats? i dont think so!

We live in silly times. I suspect many inhabitants of inner city areas would liken their tower blocks to war zones. Many considered 1984 absurd in its day, and no one got Nova Express, yet these books are now very much reflections of the society in which we now live. It’s a pity the authors weren’t around to witness recent events – or perhaps it’s a blessing. Sometimes, it’s not pleasant to find you were right all along.

I wrote This Book is Fucking Stupid as a means of addressing the dichotomy that runs through the whole field of reviewing as it’s emerged in recent years. Readers rarely seem to agree with critics, yet purchase books on the strength of the reviews its received – and then complain, feeling that they’ve been in some way misled by the critic’s positive assessment of any given text.

1.0 out of 5 stars One for the Daily Mail readers, 28 July 2008

By Bryan (Newcastle)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

If it’s a satire, it’s lacking wit, insight and humour, and if it’s not satire it betrays a staggering naivete. Characters are poorly drawn, but even in their one-dimensional state manage to be either wholly unsympathetic or downright offensive, and the world they inhabit is one seen by the most blinkered Daily Mail reader, where school fees are an important economic indicator, and the death of Jill Dando can shake the country. (The inclusion of a version of the Dando murder is so bizarre it’s almost funny, but not quite enough). The point of the book, such as it is, is facile – professionals have a function in society – but by presenting their closed world as the entirety of society, and not giving us any shade, or any tension, against their short-sightedness, the book’s never going to work unless you can actually sympathise with their views. And if you can, then I pity you. There’s also a nearly quaint 1960s radical feel – the giveaway line for me was a reference to a ‘shared lover’ – the uneasy balance between permissiveness and misogyny bringing the bearded conservatism of 60s student to mind. (The idea of overpriviledged revolutionaries obviously chimes with the theme of the book, but I don’t think that’s a deliberate echo).
There are some nice prose flourishes, but a handfull through the book, which mostly reads somewhere between plodding and clunky, while the dialogue is risible. If I’d not read some early Ballard, I’d say his editor hadn’t paid attention to an esteemed author’s manuscript.
Overall the book is a re-tread of High Rise, and suffers that book’s problem of a fundamental misanthropy based on a wilful acknowledgement only of the most venal side of humanity, that expressed in the broadsheets and world cinema of the London middle class. That could work if it was sufficiently stylised (and much as I disliked High Rise, it nearly worked through the conceit of staying within one building), but this wants to operate within a real world, but completely fails to acknowledge one exists.
If you like your writing dull, your authors solipsistic, and your themes akin to being battered over the head with a rolled Telegraph, then fill your boots on this one, but otherwise, there’s nothing to see.

Another key aspect of This Book was recycling. In these times of austerity and while green issues remain to the fore, I’m still the keen advocate of recycling I was a decade or more ago. I was raised to waste not, want not, and I’ve spent most of my writing career working to this ethos. Just as William Burroughs cut up Naked Lunch to create much of what would subsequently become the Nova trilogy, so a large proportion of the material that became THE PLAGIARIST and From Destinations Set began life as a novella entitled Destroying the Balance. This novella became my ‘word hoard’ so to speak, and I decided it was a more than fitting text to recut, re-edit and reconfigure in order to produce This Book. And why not? By reworking a pre-existing text, I’m joining a lineage of great authors who did precisely the same. Of course, not all readers appreciate what could be considered formulaic plotting, although no-one seems to complain that the bulk of crime, horror or romance novels all follow the dame formula.

1.0 out of 5 stars A waste of time and effort…, 4 Oct 2001

By deborah.daley@marshallcavendish.co.uk (London, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

I bought this book as I was going on holiday and needed something to read. It was a haste decision based on the rave reviews and the fact that this book had won an award. I did not find this book to be exciting, tense, thrilling, visionary, etc. This story of a man tracing the footsteps of another man’s killing spree is written in such a way that I wasn’t immersed in the story – I didn’t care about any of the characters, the plot was unbelieveable, long winded and consisted of twists that I had been guessed early on. It was only when I got to page 371 that I felt the story had some real feeling or was exciting – this isn’t a good sign in a novel.

Another thing was that there were too many poetic terms for describing things throughout the story. This is a talent of Mr Ballard’s that he utilised to the nth degree. I challenge any potential reader to open a page in this book and read – you’ll see that it’s difficult to keep track…

Why is this author praised as some kind of genius? Reading the synopsis of his other books it looks suspiciously like he rewrites the same story over and over again – perhaps he is a genius…

There is of course a fine line between genius and insanity, and if dumb is the new smart and the rewriting of the same story over and over again is the height of creativity, then This Book is Fucking Stupid is the very definition of a work of genius. What’s more, I’ve long said that plot’s overrated, and while a substantial number of truly important works of literature dispense with plot completely (again, The Atrocity Exhibition, Naked Lunch are obvious leading examples), while others relegate plot to a secondary or even tertiary position (I’m thinking instinctively of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work here, although again, there are many others) but of course what I really mean by this is that a truly great book needs a lot more to it than plot, and readers who read for plot alone are missing out on vast portions of the experience reading can provide. How often does plot as of and in itself make a reader pause for thought to assess their own lives, beliefs and the world around them? Still, even a good plot is wasted if the readership’s incapable of following it without it being spelled out. Perhaps more complex novels should come with plot-line summaries, and, better yet, a diagram with the key events in sequential order, just to make sure no-one gets lost along the way.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious and dull, 24 Mar 2008

By A. Auburn (Cambridgeshire, England)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

This is among the worst books Ive ever read. I couldnt follow the plot,and the language was over pretentious and unexciting. I have heard alot about J.G. Ballard but he is highly overrated and dull.

Ultimately, any writer has to accept that they’re not going to please everyone, and in fact, few would want to. I’ve made my decision: I’m going all out for the one-stars. I want to produce an entire oeuvre of ‘worst books ever’ than crush my soul churning out potboiling bollocks about knights or espionage. Let’s face it, the paperback fiction chart is grim and endlessly samey. Where’s the variety? Where’s the writing that challenges the reader and the status quo? I’d rather sit with Ballard in the ‘pretentious and dull’ corner of the literary world than be adored by the masses who loaf around on the beach reading Shopaholic or dross by Dan Brown. Stupid? Career suicide? Perhaps, but then so’s the idea of writing to become rich or famous. Fame and fortune are even more overrated than plot, but again, you’d have to venture off the bestseller list and read something other than celebrity autobiographies to find that out.

 

J.G.-Ballard-at-home-in-1-002

The late, great J G Ballard and his untidy bookcase

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

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2 thoughts on “‘Pretentious and Dull’: Celebrating Ballard’s Lone Stars

  1. I want to to generate a residing over the internet, and also I actually ended up being ready for most of the electricity attainable to begin aim.

    1. I’ve only approved this comment because it’s the most utterly meaingless collection of words I’ve seen strung together since I wrote ‘THE PLAGIARIST’, and therefore highly amusing to me. Having deleted the active link, your spamming powers have been disabled, rendering this effort double pointless. Ha!

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