J G Ballard, 1930-2009: A Man’s Man?

The British writer J G (James Graham) Ballard died on 19 April. Many excellent obituaries of J G Ballard have been written, and I don’t intend to try to emulate them here. Instead, I suggest you check out the obituaries by Harvey Molloy and Jack Ross, and also the entire special section devoted to Ballard from the Guardian.

My experience of reading J G Ballard has been remarkably similar to Jack Ross’s experience. Like Jack, I was already an SF fan, though in my case it was the YA SF novels of John Christopher that I was reading when I first encountered Ballard; like Jack, the first Ballard I read was the novella “The Voices of Time”; as he did Jack, so Ballard gave me a completely different view of what science fiction could do. I read all the early Ballard I could get my hands on – the short story collections The Terminal Beach and The Atrocity Exhibition, and the four catastrophe novels that map to the four classical elements, my favourites among them being The Drowned World and The Crystal World (the others are The Wind from Nowhere and The Burning World aka The Drought).

These novels were superficially similar to the post-war English “cosy catastrophe” novels I had read previously, such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids – novels in which upper lips remain stiff even as civilisation collapses around their owners. But in Ballard’s world, both the external world and the narrator’s mental state were in transition from one state to another. As a young man, these descriptions of unavoidable external and internal transformation resonated with me, and influenced my own writing. Though I have rarely read Ballard in recent years, it only takes a couple of paragraphs of his unique prose – both cool and feverish — to remind me why I once read little else.

I say “as a young man” deliberately, because it seems to me that JG Ballard is a writer who speaks to and appeals to men much more than women. Part of the reason for this may be the sheer quantity of sex and violence, and sexualised violence, in some of his books. Another, at least in his early work, is that his protagonists are alienated males, frequently known only by their surnames (Travis, Travers, Traven, Talbot; Vaughan; Ransome), adrift in this world and searching for psychological fulfilment in a world remade closer to their desires. Their relationships are superficial, their loyalties to the imagined world inside their minds rather than to family or friends. It’s existentialism run rampant, and existentialism has always struck me as a particularly masculine philosophy.

I have no doubt that J G Ballard is a great writer – and there’s no obligation on writers, even great writers, to appeal to all readers equally. But am I right in thinking that his work appeals more to men than to women?