J.G. Ballard: Visuality and the novels of the near future

Natalie Ferris

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

I’ve always been conscious since I started writing that the tide was running the wrong way for the writer, whereas the visual artist, the painter or sculptor, was in a seller’s market; the direction of the twentieth century was ever more visual. I sensed way back in the late fifties when I started that the tide was running away from the written word towards the visual mode of expression and therefore one couldn’t any more rely on the reader, you couldn’t expect him to meet you any more than half way. (Ballard, 1984) The growing dominance of the visual in twentieth-century contemporary culture is magnified in the writings of J. G. Ballard. His work communicated, with greater lucidity than many of his peers, the social realm as spectacle: a landscape invaded and sustained by surveillance cameras, advertising billboards, urban signage, communications networks. As a self-proclaimed ‘frustrated painter’, the visual arts also provided critical tools to challenge modes of representation in his fiction. Ballard’s feeling for, and understanding of, the visual arts, and the ways it influenced his writing, has been relatively well documented. Studies by Jeannette Baxter, Michael Delville, Gavin Parkinson, and others have observed the influence of Surrealism upon Ballard’s early work and thought, made evident in his explicit reference to artworks, particularly in the early novels The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1965) and Crystal World (1966), and their relation to the psyche. The opalescent meeting between mind and landscape forms his unsettled ‘inner space’, the ‘Ballardian’ realm in which the ‘outer world of reality and…the inner world of the mind meet and merge’. In a similar way, Andrezj Gasiorek, Roger Luckhurst and Carol Huston draw connections between Ballard’s work and British Pop Art to elucidate the particularities of a collagistic style poised between present day assemblage and dystopian disintegration, between the glossiness of the visual and the sharpness of cultural coda. All of this prompted Ballard to ask of fiction: ‘Were there any rituals we could perform, deranged sacraments assembled from a kit of desperate fears and phobias, that could conjure up a more meaningful world?’ This chapter will contend that Ballard’s most innovative works in fiction were informed by experiments with their visual aspect: typography, graphic design, illustration, collage and filmic montage. Ballard’s obsessive drive towards ‘contact’ with the surface of the text can be observed as early as 1958, while Chemistry & Industry journal, where he produced a series of photocopied typographical collages, simply named Project for a New Novel. These photocopied arrangements, which were not published until 1978, consisted of a series of large spreads intended for mounting on advertisement billboards. This project kindled Ballard’s desire to collect images of the twentieth century to create ‘a new kind of novel, entirely consisting of magazine style headlines and layouts, with a deliberately meaningless text’, to ‘Get away from text altogether – just headlines!’. This chapter will trace a line of graphic experimentation throughout his work of the 1960s to illuminate the importance of the surface, detailing his Project for a New Novel (1958), ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’ (1967-1971), his Ambit ‘Court Circular’ (1968), and the realisation of several of these elements – as William Burroughs put it in his preface, ‘literally blowing up the image’ – in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Images were to be repeatedly tested, processed, re-shot, fading in their potency until a new, polished identity emerged. The chapter will culminate in a reading of the lesser-known sequence of ‘apocalyptic texts’ The Invisible Years created for Ambit in collaboration with Martin Bax and the drawings of Ronald Sandford. These texts, characterised by their illusory patterning, interminable vistas, and impossible architecture, demonstrate Ballard’s attempt to create an ‘invisible’ literature, to create a new work of fiction that would confound the eye.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBritish Avant-Garde Fiction of the 1960s
EditorsKaye Mitchell, Nonia Williams
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781474436229, 9781474436212
ISBN (Print)9781474436199
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2019

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • J. G. Ballard
  • Ballard
  • modernism
  • collage
  • graphic design
  • advertising
  • fiction
  • avant-garde
  • novel
  • visual novel
  • visuality
  • theory
  • Eduardo Paolozzi
  • British Literature
  • 1960s


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