A game played by all of us who work at the literary end of the book trade, and I expect by mere consumers too, is: spot the real classic, the author who will be widely read in two hundred years’ time. No need to set down who won’t figure. The winners will come from one of two areas – the hugely best-selling super-stars generally put down by your ivory-towered or spitefully envious literary ‘critics’, and unputdownable by the great book-buying public; or those of us published but not widely known, damned with little or faint praise by the pundits, but supported by a discerning and faithful public.
Here and now my favourite from the first category is Frederick Forsyth; from the second, J. G. Ballard.
The latter of course doesn’t really fit my second category: if not a best-seller super-star, he still sells well, especially in France; he is widely known and widely read; and he has been praised by such ‘establishment’ figures as Angus Wilson, Graham Greene, and Anthony Burgess – though perhaps I should say ‘established’ since all three are mavericks.
There are two reasons why Ballard tends to be dismissed by your common-or- garden up-market reviewer: first, he made his name as a writer of science fiction short-stories (for, you know, pulp magazines); second, and far more important, it is difficult to say what he is about. The first is a cover for the second – for a reviewer is lost if he cannot say what a writer is about, yet the whole point of a writer who deserves serious attention must be that he is exploring, discovering, making formulations in and about areas of our lives that have either not been ‘done’ before, or, as a result of the historical process, are only just coming into existence: it is difficult to summarise such writers, relate them to others, to place them. And it is not nice to have to say: ‘This I loved. It was moving, revelatory, but I don’t yet have the means to say what he is about.’