‘The Stuff of Now’: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard

Interview by Gwyn Richards & Simon Sellars

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard

Originally published on ballardian.com, 2 May 2007.

Toby Litt is an English novelist who published his first book, Adventures in Capitalism (a volume of short stories), in 1996, when he was 28. He’s since won praise for the dark inventiveness of his writing, a combination of cinematic prose, apocalyptic imagery and sharp wit that freely dissects contemporary relationships and the sociopathic glue that binds them. Litt’s latest book, Hospital, was released in April, and was likened in a recent review to ‘Stephen King, in his gory horror phase, scripting a feature-length episode of Holby City.’

Given that he’s one of the special guests at this weekend’s J.G. Ballard Conference at the University of East Anglia, we thought we’d quiz Toby on his relationship to Ballard’s writing.

G.R. & S.S.


GWYN: Ballard famously eschews ‘dinner party London’ in favour of the orbital suburbs, both in his fiction and in his life. Your work, on the other hand, has emphasised the drudgery and boredom of growing up in the suburbs (I’m thinking of Beatniks in particular). Do you agree with Ballard that the suburbs are where the ‘real’ England is?

TOBY: Clearly, it’s not in one place. That’s the reason why England is such a good subject, because it’s a hugely large number of subjects, all under the one heading. My understanding of Ballard is that he’s being slightly paradoxical: the suburbs are usually seen as innately conservative (small ‘c’), but they are where new phenomena are constantly emerging — rather than in the smug centre, which prides itself on being ‘cutting edge’. And because these phenomena are suburban, and widely accepted almost immediately, they aren’t seen as in any way interesting. In this, I think Ballard is right. Hanging on to a sense of the weirdness and extremity of everyday life is very difficult. Particularly in empirical England which lives in constant denial of being weird or extreme.

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard GWYN: What you mean by ’empirical England’?

The traditional values of England are often seen to be those of scepticism, common sense and conservatism. These are often contrasted to the values of France, which, from this English point of view, appear perverse and paradoxical, or the values of Germany, which appear metaphysical, obfuscatory and generally dubious. This strain of thought is particularly strong in English philosophy, right up to the present day. A philosopher like G.E. Moore wouldn’t have got started in Germany. And in France he’d have been taken to be some faux naïf prankster.

GWYN: Could you give us some examples of the weirdness and extremity you mentioned?

I’ll give you one idea of extremity. I was at Birmingham airport last week, and along came a stag party. The groom-to-be was dressed as the tooth fairy. He wore a pink leotard, a tutu and a silver plastic tiara. He was carrying a can of Special Brew. Nobody paid him much attention. He was a perfectly normal emanation of suburbia. He wasn’t in any way extreme. Nor was what he was going to get up to in the next week.

Everyone’s in denial. Or they’ve been sectioned.

GWYN: Is there a particular phase of Ballard’s career that you think has produced his best work?

TOBY: An invidious question. I will answer by saying that I think that there is a particular rhythm to Ballard’s sentences. It was there right from the start (The Wind from Nowhere; I don’t understand why he disowns this), and it’s still there now. But, to my ear, this rhythm in his writing was most distinctive in The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise. His rhythm now seems to me slightly faster, slightly less sure of itself.

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard SIMON: I agree with you about The Wind from Nowhere; I re-read it recently and found it surprisingly decent. There’s a real sense of psychological disintegration, of claustrophobia as the survivors hole up; the ambient menace of the wind was terrifically drawn.

TOBY: Yes. It seems to be very much the start-point for his oeuvre, if you want to call it that. It’s certainly not comparable to, say, Graham Greene’s disowned novels — which, from what I’ve read, aren’t only very badly written but are also acutely anti-Semitic. As Ballard started with the four elements [in his first four novels], it seems odd and imbalancing to leave one of them out. Everyone realises it’s an early novel.

GWYN: What’s your favourite Ballard?

TOBY: The Drowned World. I find the imagery very satisfactory. But Crash probably had the most influence on my own writing. I put it in the acknowledgements to Corpsing, because I felt the influence should be openly acknowledged.

GWYN: Corpsing has sections that read like ballistics reports, describing the path of a bullet through someone’s body in minute detail. Like Ballard, do you read and find inspiration in invisible literature?

TOBY: Yes — medical textbooks. There’s quite a bit of that in Hospital. But I am probably more influenced by non-literary non-verbal sources: paintings, music.

SIMON: I read where you said critical theory was another influence — Deleuze, in particular. What’s the appeal there? Does theory feedback into your writing?

TOBY: I have been reading Deleuze in the past couple of years, yes. Both in his own books and those he wrote with Guattari. It’s important to remind yourself that there are many different ways of thinking. I find the French theorists fascinating. Much more so than any English philosophy of the same period. It is an assault on common sense. I tend to assume that common sense, because it’s common, is wrong. I don’t believe the truth is simple.

When we looked upwards we saw beneath us a sky of rosebushes, gravel paths, equipment and thick, healthy, but slightly too-dry grass. (Not that it would ever go razor-edged and cut you. It was too purely English for that. Tensed between thumbs, it would give a farty vibrato like that of a badly beaten-up cello.) The ground above us, on the other hand, was blue, blue as the deep end of a very wide swimming pool. A swimming pool seen not from the diving board, but suspended motionless above it. Suspended so that no shadow is projected down, and there is no idea of edge at all. A swimming pool splash-virgin, quite unruffled. At the horizon, a rough line of oak trees was interrupted halfway along by the leap of pylons and wires.”

Toby Litt. Deadkidsongs (2001).

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard
Original cover ideas for Deadkidsongs.

GWYN: Like Ballard in Running Wild, you’ve dealt with pre-meditated murder committed by children — in Deadkidsongs. What draws you to writing about violence?

TOBY: I really don’t know. It may be that I feel that everyone is capable of violence — if only imaginary violence. To portray the world honestly, you have to include that.

GWYN: As a father, do you worry about violence, especially in the wake of recent moral panics to do with inner-city London?

TOBY: I try not to. But it’s not merely moral panics. The corner shop at the end of my road was recently robbed by a group of six or seven men, each one of them carrying a gun. They hospitalised the guy working behind the till — hit him several times on the back of the head with the butt of a pistol. I probably worry more about a general callousness — callousness as entertainment.

SIMON: That worries me, too. In Australia recently, there was a case where a group of school kids sexually assaulted a girl, set a homeless man on fire, filmed it all, sold it to their mates on DVD, and uploaded parts to YouTube. Discussing this case, Stephen Smith traces this strand of ‘callousness as entertainment’ back to Abu Ghraib, and the desensitisation of images of torture. I’m guessing you’d agree with his very Ballardian conclusion, that ‘violence has become part of consumerism’…

TOBY: I think we could go further back, and become even more Ballardian. How about the Kennedy assassination? Perhaps what we need to do is realise how consumerism has become violence, and nothing but violence. That was, perhaps, the message of Kingdom Come. However, in talking about these things, an even longer perspective is sensible. In the eighteenth century, crowds used to attend executions; criminals were placed in the stocks, entirely at the mercy of the mob. Capital punishment was probably the most entertaining thing people saw from one end of the year to the next. Clearly, a festival atmosphere surrounded these deaths.

What seems, to me, to have changed is an unmistakable feeling that unless the victim is seen to be suffering, a prank isn’t really funny. If you look at English film comedies of the 1940s, they appear to be almost entirely without ill will. In fact, they are based on a kind of communal good humour, rather than any kind of wit. This continued into the fifties, though that may be where things started to change. No-one actually wanted Norman Wisdom to suffer permanent injury. Maybe it was the Angry Young Men who first admitted they wanted someone to be bloody well hurt.

SIMON: Stephen Smith uses Kingdom Come to bolster his argument. Similarly, in your interview with Ballard, you suggested the book is ‘more directly political’ than Ballard’s previous work. Why, then, do you think KC — so attuned to today — wasn’t so well received by the majority of critics?

TOBY: Probably because it is so easy now to read Ballard in a Ballardian way. By which I mean, people are very inward with his thought. He is always going to be compared with himself, with his own previous bests. And because the Ballardian reading places a value on the extremes, most readers following this logic will compare Kingdom Come to The Atrocity Exhibition or Crash, and find it lacking. It isn’t as extreme. It isn’t ahead of it’s time – it’s, as you say, ‘attuned to today’. Accurate social commentary is less sexy than prophecy.

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard

The point is that what see as threatening about the all-pervasive and all-powerful consumer society is that it’s not any specific individual who is responsible for anything nasty that may happen in the future. This is a collective enterprise. All of us who are members of consumer society — all of us are responsible, in a way … I think it may be that in the future we’ll be dominated by huge masochistic systems. Soviet Russia was an example of this. I mean, people tolerated their own abuse because for some reason they wanted to be abused. Someone says in [Kingdom Come] that the future is a system of huge competing psychopathologies. I’d say that was true of the 20th century. It sort of sums it up, in a way. So I’m not talking about an individual impetus that will drive the engine. This engine has been assembled, and will be started, by everyone probably working unconsciously.

J.G. Ballard, interviewed by Toby Litt, 2007.

When I said that Kingdom Come was ‘more directly political’ I meant that it would be fairly easy to make a case for it as an anti-fascist novel. Yet the seductions of a different kind of techno fascism in Ballard’s earlier novels, those containing his deranged leader-figures, are more convincing — perhaps because they are, on occasion, almost given in to. You don’t know what’s really going on, morally. The glamorous psychopaths seem, at least, to have energy going for them. They are often surrounded by wastelands of apathy. In such circumstances, the person who makes change — however objectionable — is always going to be a delight of sorts.

GWYN: Would you like to see any of your books filmed?

TOBY: I would be happy to see any or all of them filmed. So far, there have only been short films made from short stories.

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard GWYN: Some of your most vivid and memorable writing takes the form of short fiction. In your Ballard interview, he bemoaned the recent lack of places to publish short stories. Do you find this as well?

TOBY: I agree. However, I think the American scene — with which ours is often compared — can be immensely smug. It is easier to be published in anthologies, over here, than in magazines.

GWYN: What can be done to improve the situation?

The only thing that can really be done is developing an audience specifically for short stories. I think it’s there, if only because of the number of people now attending creative writing courses.

GWYN: What do you appreciate about the shorter form, as opposed to novel-length fiction?

TOBY: It is a far less reasonable proposition. Hospital is an attempt to be unreasonable at novel length. But, most of the time, a novel requires the novelist to moderate their extremity.

GWYN: Some of your writing — particularly some of your short stories — are experimental in form; you use internet culture and email as narrative in the ‘Betamax Boy’ story in Adventures in Capitalism, for example. Where, if anywhere, do you see the best current avant-garde/experimental fiction?

TOBY: I don’t really believe in literary experiments. If a writer writes experimentally, that suggests they don’t know what the outcome of their experiment will be. Whereas, when I write, I have a fairly good idea of the outcome, I just don’t know what the effect will be — on readers. That’s a very different proposition. If I misjudge, I misjudge the readers rather than the work itself.

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard GWYN: In Ghost Story you begin with an apparently autobiographical, long introduction and make it clear that the novel is based, at least to some extent, on your own experiences. Ballard has, of course, written extensively about his life, in a highly fictionalised form, in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. In the latter, especially, it is not clear to what extent he projects his own obsessions and character types onto the people around him, and to what extent events have influenced his fiction. Presumably all novelists base ideas and characters on people and events from their own lives, but does this work the other way around as well? Do you ever interpret reality through your own fiction?

TOBY: It’s all I do.

SIMON: Ballard recently said in a couple of interviews that he thinks internet culture has a tremendous vitality. And in your recent interview with Ballard, you spoke about the MySpace phenomenon. As a writer, and a successful one, how have you found your experience on MySpace, in terms of interacting with your audience? Has it been beneficial?

TOBY: I have a better sense of my audience now, I think. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I’m not sure.

SIMON: There’s a bit more to it than that, though, isn’t there? Didn’t readers of your MySpace blog suggest characters for Hospital?

TOBY: There was a competition to suggest names for characters who might have appeared in Hospital. But that was only after the book was completed, and I’d put a full list of Staff & Patients online. Two real-life readers do appear in the book, because they bid for that dubious privilege at so-called ‘Immortality Auctions’. The money went to charity, and Peter Dixon and Melanie Angel went to Hospital.

SIMON: Can you see yourself opening up sections of your work to readers in the future?

TOBY: I may, at some point, show readers work in progress, to see how they react. At the moment, though, I’m happy to work in private. Over the past few years I’ve read episodes from my next book (called I play the drums in a band called okay) out at festivals. The reaction led me to make a few changes.

SIMON: Do you find MySpace addictive? Your MySpace Doppel idea suggests that you’d like to go deeper and further into the whole social networking aspect. Could you explain a bit about the Doppel concept and how you think it would enhance the MySpace experience?

TOBY: It was the idea that instead of just searching for a single thing you have in common with another MySpace user (My Chemical Romance, for dull example), you could compare the entirety of your profile. In this way, you could find someone who had pretty much identical tastes in everything. That’s why they’d be your doppelganger.

This idea has already been nixed by someone at MySpace. Apparently there are child safety issues. Paedophiles might pose as fans of The Sugababes.

I do find MySpace addictive. I may stop.

GWYN: How do you see the state of fiction writing in this day and age? Are we in a positive place?

TOBY: The state of publishing is not good. A lot of pseudo-literary writing is passed off as the real thing. The real thing is very rare. But that’s always been the case. There is a real problem that many readers are offended by anything which asks them to work. Books must go to them, not the other way round. I’m sure that, from the point of view of the future, much of our fiction will seem simplistic and banal. Any decent novel should require rereading, probably more than once.

GWYN: What do you mean by ‘pseudo-literary writing’?

TOBY: Writing that makes no genuine attempt to extend what writing is capable of.

Around Nurse Swallow, the Trauma Team was moving smoothly into action. To her left, bending over the patient’s held open mouth, anaesthetist Sarah Felt slid a breathing tube down into the trachea. Patricia Parish, one of the most senior team-members, inserted a cannula into a vein in the left forearm, then attached the long plastic tube flowing out of a transparent saline bag. Other nurses moved swiftly in and out, bringing things, removing them.

Opposite her, standing back a little, Surgeon John Steele looked calmly on – it was not yet his time.

Toby Litt. Hospital (2007).

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard SIMON: In Hospital101, a list of 101 influences on Hospital, you include Ballard’s High-Rise — how so?

TOBY: In that the book is, to a great extent, the biography of the fabric of the building rather than of any particular character in it.

GWYN: You’re a guest at the Ballard conference at the UEA in May. What can we expect from your talk?

TOBY: I’m taking part in a panel. So, I’ll wait to see what questions come up. We should be discussing the most recent books.

SIMON: You actually took the creative writing course at the UEA, didn’t you? Was that helpful as a way into your professional writing career?

TOBY: It got me my break. Malcolm Bradbury chose four of my stories for an anthology called Class Work. It contained writing from the twenty-five years he’d been teaching there. Once that happened, I had a publisher approach me. Up until that point, I’d had about five years of solid rejection.

SIMON: Any final words on Ballard?

TOBY: I’d just like to say I admire his writing immensely. I think he is unique among British writers for the consistent extremity of his vision, and his willingness to engage with the stuff of now.