Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
In 1968 Merril edited an anthology of the ‘New Wave’ writers England Swings SF. Stories of Speculative Fiction. Apart from stories and poems Merril presents in this book her opinion on every writer in original fashion. England Swings SF tries to match the ‘New Wave’ fiction in graphic experiments and narrative strategies.
The very beginning of the anthology resembles an avant-garde poem: You have never read a book like this before, and the next time you read one anything like it, it won’t be much like it at all.
It’s an action-photo, a record of process-in-change, a look through the perspex porthole at the momentarily stilled bodies in a scout ship boosting fast, and heading out of sight into the multiplex mystery of inner/outer space.
I can’t tell you where they are going, but maybe that’s why I keep wanting to read what they write. The next time someone assembles the work of the writers in this – well, ‘school’ is too formal … and ‘movement’ sounds pretentious… (Merril 1968: 9-10)
The anthology contains works of over twenty young and ambitious writers – Ballard is the only one who has three of his stories reprinted (instead of one, like the rest) and who is discussed in Merril’s annotations twice. Given the prominent position of a guru of British avant-garde, he is showed to American readers (the anthology was meant to introduce the new literary fashion in America) as an often misunderstood, intellectually challenging writer. Merril chooses newest stories , which are written is the present tense and use the collage technique: images, bits and pieces of commercials, psychiatric studies and TV newsreels are juxtaposed to show the prevailing violence of the contemporary mediascape.
Merril decides to characterize Ballard (and other writers) also in collages. According to Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) collage technique challenges the readers expectation of a synthetic, singular meaning. Diverse passages, graphically rearranged quotes of interviews, reviews and Merril’s own opinions do not give an unified picture but rather show, at least in the case of Ballard, discussions and quarrels concerning his person and his place in the British literary world.
One can only hope that for Ballard too the worst misunderstanding is over, so that he will be free to create in a more intelligent atmosphere…
… and so it was – in England, where the earlier work had finally been digested.
Freud pointed out that one has to distinguish between the manifest content of the inner world of the psyche and its latent content; and I think in exactly the same way, today, when the fictional elements have overwhelmed reality, one has to distinguish between the manifest content of reality and its latent contents… and his sponsorship of the Ambit contest for the best prose or poetry written under the influence of drugs. (Merril 1968: 104-105)
Though Merril’s style is far from critical exactness (she does not give the sources of texts for her collages) but it very well shows the atmosphere of the 1960s discussions of the ‘New Wave’ and Ballard’s place in it. Juxtaposed with other experimental writers he is discussed within the science fiction movement, with the strong suggestion that his literary goal was to uplift, renew and meliorate science fiction. Ballard at that time was praised not only by science fiction critics and generally, the tone of reviews is similar to Merril’s – this writer is the best and the most interesting of the ‘speculative fiction’ writers.