Ballard, Burroughs, and “Truth” in Writing

Today I read a rather interesting interview with JG Ballard at Salon. It’s mainly about Ballard’s thoughts on his own work and the work of William S. Burroughs, and I found it interesting because he had some very intriguing things to say about what he terms “the bourgeois novel”.


The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.
Of course there are problems that Ballard sets aside when he makes this statement, such as how one can know the difference between the “true” and one’s own “judgment”. This is a major problem in philosophy, one known as hermeneutics. Most sensible theories of hermeneutics would claim that one’s understanding of what is “true” is always, inevitably, affected by one’s judgment… that there can be no experience of the true without judgment entering into the picture.
But that’s beside the point to some degree, because of something else Ballard claims, which is what “truth” he wants to depict. When Ballard claims that he thinks a novelist should act as a reporter, he clarifies:
I mean he’s reporting not just on the external world, but on his own interior world because he’s telling the truth about himself. It’s extremely difficult to do. Most writers flinch at the thought of being completely honest about themselves. So absolute honesty is what marks the true modern.
Truth, then, is not a claim at absolute truth, not at pure moral precepts nor at the scientific truth of the world, but simply honesty. Honesty, of course, is not so simple. Self-censorship is at least part of what Ballard is talking about.
I loosely agree with Ballard. Writing fiction that simply reassures the reader about the world, about whatever common sense the author wishes to promulgate, is something I simply abhor when I run across it in fiction. I think that it is important to challenge readers, to widen the scope of the imaginably real beyond the narrow boundaries created by mass market fiction and the major TV networks.
Of course, as a science fiction writer, it’s quite difficult to figure out what this means. My sympathies lie with Ballard, but then again I’ve been interested in writing jarring, fundamentally dislocative fiction for as long as I can remember writing fiction. My first SF story was set in a modern country in which the government had ceased to exist except as computer simulations, and in which protesters were routinely herded up and dumped outside of major citystates. It was a horror. I can’t say that my newer work is a whole lot better, but I can say that while my concerns have shifted slightly, I am still interested in jolting my (imagined) readers out of the world they imagine they live in, into a world that they cannot imagine.
I think, though, that it’s important we reconstruct the future as we imagine it. After all, the real world is quite different from the real world as we imagine it. The difference is that the real world itself intrudes upon our lives in a disruptive way. Suddenly a new disease emerges. Beyond a few experts, it’s beyond most of us to anticipate such a thing happening. Most of us go about our daily lives never imagining that something like AIDS or SARS will emerge and rock the world.
Disease outbreak is a single example of this sort of thing. Another is massive political change. I think some of the older Koreans I know did not imagine that Korea would become an electoral democracy within their lifetimes, and when I look at some of the oldest Koreans I have met, I am quite certain the highly-networked, telecommunications-mad, hightech nation that Korea has become was absolutely unimaginable when they were about my age and struggling through reconstruction after the Korean War. My father’s experience of the decolonization of Africa in the 50s and 60s is another example.
Our complacency isn’t just something that happens soemhow, magically. It’s reinforced by our literature, our art, the stories we tell ourselves about the world. People take for granted that there will be an America, a Canada, a Korea, a Tanzania in one hundred years. But such visions may look as hackneyed in a century as century-old SF stories about Rhodesia or the British Empire would have looked today.
I’m perhaps an odd creature because in fact, stories that assume, in say a century’s time, the relatively unchanged existence of much of our world as it is now, stories like that, well, they just look absolutely hackneyed to me. It’s possible that there will be an America, or a Canada, or a Korea, yes. But for those places to basically recognizable seems to me to be so far-fetched as to be stupid.
Perhaps that is why I write SF… because I want us to be realistic about the path we’re on, aware of the good and the bad and more than anything the fundamentally change-fomenting process in which we are now involved. The world as we know it is being altered deeply, fundamentally, in ways we cannot even imagine right now. It will continue to do so, whether or not we are ready for it. That, for me, is an uncomfortable truth with which we must reconcile ourselves.
Of course, thereafter there is the problem of how to truthfully describe a future when of course the future is not knowable. There is plausibility, and I have a feeling something about looking at nightmares, worst-case scenarios (as in the post-apocalyptic novel), and just general weirdness are routes that are important to discuss and explore. But that’s for another discussion at some point when I am a little less exhausted.

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