There’s a well established industry in giving the context to how books are written. It’s perhaps surprising how little attention is given to how books are read. There is a strand of literary criticism that emphasises ‘the role of the reader’, something which emerged from the late-1970s, notably from Barthes and Foucault, as a component to the ‘death of the author’. This standard for studies in communications and media is, however, often a trotted-out abstraction to give enough quotes to show awareness of canonical theory books. ‘Authorship is completed by the reader’ – what might an example of the trope look like? I wondered this as I thought about the manifold contexts in which I’ve just read J G Ballard’s The Drought.
The novel dramatises a world in which a film of human-made gunk has formed on the oceans and stopped them from evaporating to form clouds and rain. I started reading it while commuting. This seems a typically Ballardian setting. It seemed unlikely that my early morning rural travel companions were familiar with the way that Ballard showed what everything we take for granted might look like when falling to pieces. The very reliability of a bus; the descent into animality that’s an infrastructural collapse away – all of this insulated from them as they listened to their downloads, or stared out of the window to go over insecurities that could be luxurious when compared to Ballard’s thought experiments in the unthinkable.
By the weekend I had ventured to the beach. After a tiring first week in my new job, I decided that I needed to get more exercise to help not only with my health in general, but also to make the week’s demands more doable. Soon I was reading about Ballard’s protagonists surviving along a coastline that moved further from the land as the sea receded in drought. I thought about order as a species of disorder. Then a code mod for the AI in my writing software just popped into my head. Ballard’s collaged landscapes are a part of my daydreams about cutting up worlds made of words in order to reassemble them with code into alien worlds that seem oddly familiar. I moved on from this to a nut sundae. Then I watched normality unfolding at the seaside. Wet children shivered under towels. Dogs excitedly chased tennis balls and each other.
By Sunday, I took a diversion on a woodland walk to have a pee. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Unfortunately, as I found a discreet spot, I fell backwards into thorny undergrowth. I twisted away from it as I landed. Walking away from the scene, I just knew something was wrong. I cut the walk short and my partner helped me get to the general hospital. This bus journey saw me as a spectacle. I was a stranger walking in unspecified distress. The casualty department whisked me in as a priority patient – suspected spinal. A team of 3 staff manoeuvred me for inspections, causing the kinds of noises from me that you hear from survivors of car crashes on TV documentaries. I continued with my copy of The Drought as I was sedated, tested and then X-rayed.
I managed to finish the book today. My memory of it is fragmented by the Codeine and Diazepam in my drug cocktail My attempts to write this post were fragmented into bouts of alternately sitting and pacing as I tried to get fit to return to work and, yes, that normality again. How desirable its absence makes it. So my context of reading The Drought can be described similarly to its back-cover puff: ‘surrealist flourishes only heighten the atmosphere’ (Guardian). I think of this surrealism as a set of themes that form a kind of poetry that resembles a list. How do I understand the sequence of events surrounding the book’s reading without trying to structure them? And then – ‘His fantasies are explored with a maniac’s logic’ (New Statesman). I think back to my list of tips for writing a Ballard novel. Ballard himself had lists, collecting materials so he could organise the modern world only to destroy it in his fiction. As a rejoinder to the context industry for writing, maybe there could be accounts of reading contexts like the above – interviews with readers of a specific author.