A few weeks ago the American author, James Purdy, died. It didn’t create much of a fuss, certainly on the UK side of the Atlantic, but not even in the US, to any great extent. I couldn’t help thinking of him when I heard that J.G. Ballard had died. Although their writing is not that similar, there are similarities between the two.
Both were outsiders, and both were better writers than they were given credit for, because they didn’t quite fit into the establishment. Purdy was ferociously anti-establishment, in fact, and refused to conform to anyone’s expectations or stereotypes. His writing, therefore, infuriated many, including those who could have been expected to be part of his natural constituency. He didn’t care; he just wrote what he wrote.
Ballard, similarly, was careless of public opinion. He was unafraid to deal with controversial material (for example, Crash) and, as a result, he was never truly mainstream and never quite attained the acclaim he should have done. That he was seen (wrongly) as ‘just’ a science-fiction writer didn’t help, of course. Literary snobbery runs very deep, and to be classed as a genre writer is an irretrievable stigma for any author.
The second area of similiarity between them is that they each, in their novels, dealt with communication and, in particular, those breakdowns of communication that are at the heart of all true human conflict. The only difference is that Ballard did this by envisioning on a larger canvas – the typical sci-fi approach – while Purdy used the individual, the single, flawed man – Malcolm, for example – from which to draw inferences on a wider scale.
But in each man was a decent humanity and a genuine desire to comprehend the good and the bad, and the reasons for each that subsist in us all.