The Writing Machine: J. G. Ballard in Modern and Postmodern Short Story Theory

By March-Russell, Paul | Postmodern Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Writing Machine: J. G. Ballard in Modern and Postmodern Short Story Theory


March-Russell, Paul, Postmodern Studies


Abstract. This chapter begins as a critical reflection upon my book, The Short Story: An Introduction (2009). There, I argued against the New Critical glossing of the short story in modernist terms, and suggested an approach that might tally with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's postmodern conception of writing as a machine. Taken this way, Edgar Allan Poe's notion of the tale as an engineered object works to produce desire, an effect further developed in Boris Éjxenbaum's formalist reading of O. Henry in terms of a machine ethos. J.G. Ballard's stories arguably represent the apotheosis of Deleuze and Guattari's writing machine, a principle of repetition, assemblage and modality that echoes the classical avant-garde as well as the proficiency of Edwardian short fiction. In conclusion, via one of Ballard's protégés at New Worlds, M. John Harrison, I consider the limitations of this approach towards not only Ballard but also the short story.

Keywords: J.G. Ballard, short story, science fiction, avant-garde, Boris Exjenbaum, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, minor literature, M. John Harrison

In this chapter, I reflect upon my book, The Short Story: An Introduction (2009), via a consideration of J.G. Ballard's short fiction. In particular, I explore the distinctions between modern and, what might be called, postmodern short story theory as represented by the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's concept of "minor literature".1 Ballard can be seen as exemplifying Deleuze and Guattari's claim for writing to be considered as a machine, and that the short story is an especially appropriate genre to be read in these tenus, hi exploring this claim, Ballard is presented as one of the key innovators of the short story during the post-war period: a writer who, according to this approach, unlocks the secret of the short story. Yet, if true, this critique reveals a number of limitations to the short story: constraints that are not necessarily symptomatic of Ballard's style but are inherent to the short story as a genre. If we are to be sensitive readers and enthusiastic promoters of the short story, then we also need to acknowledge what it can or cannot do, and not to make undue claims on its behalf. Which begs my final point: perhaps the claim of writing as a machine is false, in which case the inherent flaw lies not with the short story but with the theoretical model of Deleuze and Guattari that, like their modernist predecessors, fails to unlock the short story - its secret remains intact.

Criticism as Self- Reflection, or Revisiting a Past Crime

I will firstly summarise my book's argument and offer some commentary on how it was written. (This, I hope, is not narcissism. It seems, increasingly, to me that criticism is a creative act and that its process of composition should be reflected upon like other, more apparent forms of creative writing.) Unlike other studies in the field, it does not offer a definition of the short story. Following Ian Reid's presentation of the short story as a protean form that effectively dismantles the various categories - unity of impression, moment of crisis, symmetry of design - inherited from Edgar Allan Poe (54-65), it remains surprising that the short story is relentlessly over-defined as a genre, even if these maximal definitions remain variants of Poe's critique. Whether the book is an attempt to make short story criticism "grow up", and abandon an adolescent phase of edgy self-defence, is for the reader to decide. Despite the current economic conditions for the Humanities, whereby to survive a Humanities subject must have "impact", it is very difficult for any single study to affect other academic communities, let alone have a real-world effect (police officers and health fanatics are still called "fascists" despite the many dispassionate analyses of fascist ideology). In truth, the book began as a modest proposal, examining British and American short fiction from 1830 to the present day, which expanded once the publisher had encouraged me to be as comprehensive as possible within the agreed format and word limit. …

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