J G Ballard

J G Ballard by Fay Godwin
J G Ballard by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

Biography

The novelist and short-story writer J G Ballard was born in Shanghai, China in 1930. When he was 11, the Japanese invaded the Shanghai International Settlement and interned him and his family. He drew on the experience for the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984).

He began training as a doctor at Cambridge, but on winning a short story competition, moved to study English at Queen Mary, University of London. Having left without completing his degree, he worked briefly as a copywriter for an advertising agency and as an encyclopaedia salesman before joining the RAF.

His first short story was published in 1956 in the magazine New Worlds; his first novel, The Drowned World, was published in 1962. When his wife died in 1964, he raised his three children alone, living in the Shepperton area near the famous film studios and London’s Heathrow airport, and also working as a literary and scientific editor.

Ballard identified his influences as being in the surrealist tradition, and befriended avant garde artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi. In 1970, he staged an exhibition of crashed cars in a London gallery; this led to his 1973 novel Crash, an exploration of the eroticism of automobile accidents. The film version, made in 1996 by David Cronenberg, only served to exacerbate the controversy, and at one point it was banned in the London borough of Westminster and campaigned against by the Daily Mail.

Other later satirical works include Cocaine Nights (1996); for some, Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is his best collection of short stories. ‘Ballardian’ has passed into the language as a term in its own right; the Collins English Dictionary defines it as: ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’. For the writer Will Self, one of Ballard’s most dedicated disciples, this ‘fails entirely to capture the vigorous strangeness of his finest writing, and its avowedly philosophical cast.’

Ballard described the mainstream literary world which acknowledged him when the Empire of the Sun was published as ‘the enemy.’ He declined a CBE in 2003, and died in 2009; the title of his 2008 memoir, Miracles of Life, refers to his three children. His archive is at the British Library.

Further information about the life of J G Ballard can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Related articles

Looking back at Empire: the background to Empire of the Sun

Article by:
J G Ballard
Themes:
Power and conflict, Literature 1950–2000

J G Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai, and spent the last two years of the Second World War interned in a civilian camp with his parents. He explains how these experiences inspired Empire of the Sun, and reflects on seeing his novel made into a film.

An introduction to High-Rise

Article by:
Roger Luckhurst
Themes:
Visions of the future, Literature 1950–2000

Roger Luckhurst introduces High-Rise, J G Ballard's novel about the disintegrating social fabric inside a luxury high-rise apartment block.

Modern literature and technology

Article by:
Roger Luckhurst
Themes:
Visions of the future, Capturing and creating the modern

From the telegraph and the gramophone to cinema and cyberspace, 20th-century literature frequently addressed the wondrous and weird nature of emerging technologies. Here Roger Luckhurst explores the ways in which technological innovation impacted on key literary works of the period.

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Created by: J G Ballard

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