In The View from the Cheap Seats, the much celebrated cadence and imagination of Neil Gaiman’s prose comes to bear on a variety of topics, in this selection of his non-fiction writing.
What View accomplishes, though, is considerable. Broken up into sections — “What I Believe,” “Music and the People Who Make It,” “Some People I Have Known,” “Make Good Art,” and so on — his musings shine with wit, understatement, and a warm lack of pretention.
Other than being renowned for his works of fiction such as the The Sandman comic series, and the novels American Gods and The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman’s non-fiction notoriety circles around the much shared Make Good Art commencement speech in 2012 at the University of the Arts, and that transcript appears in the book. But Gaiman touches on many areas that both inspire him, and he sees as a call to arms for the other creatives among his audience:
Inspiration practically oozes out the sides. It’s not a self-help book anymore than it is an autobiography or the next installment of Sandman, but so many of Neil Gaiman’s essays and speeches are pure inspiration. Some pieces will inspire you to read a new author, or a new genre. Some will inspire you to be a new author, or create a new genre. Nearly all will inspire you to find or make new art. And what more could you ask from a collection of nonfiction, than to rouse you to go out and do something in the real world?
What’s fascinating is the path his career took to arrive at this point as a distinguished weaver of strange new worlds. He started as a journalist and then switched to fiction as a way of getting at the truth without fact-checking, as he explains in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
“I left journalism because I felt it was easier to tell the truth while lying. It was easier and more honest to go into something saying, “I’m making stuff up but I will tell you true things,” rather than do the journalism thing of “sources are telling the truth.”
His love of art in it’s many forms is apparent, but his love of books, reading and re-reading are called out in all reviews:
Gaiman is a writer above all, though, and his entries about writing and reading make up the meat of View. They range from the deeply personal, eerily poignant “Ghosts in the Machines: Some Hallowe’en Thoughts,” first published in the New York Times, to an appreciation of the element of dreams in H.P. Lovecraft’s work — a particularly illuminating topic, as one of Gaiman’s most beloved characters, Morpheus of The Sandman, is the deity of dreams himself. Even more intriguing is “All Books Have Genders,” a meditation on the making of American Gods — as well as a humble assessment of his authorial flaws — in which he offers the succinct slogan “Novels accrete,” an entire master class on the creative process summed up gracefully in two words.
My ears as the WhatBook writer perk up also at the suggestion it is a great way to get ideas for your reading list:
The book will also double his fans’ to-read lists and inspire readers to browse the secondhand sections in their favorite book or record shops. Gaiman is big on rereading. It’s one of several themes that weave in and out of these pieces, in addition to telling the truth in fantastic forms, finding your voice, breaking the rules, and making something new. This is a book to dip in and out of; while themes and ideas do repeat, they will also change and take on new resonances over time.
But as the title suggests Gaiman sees himself, if not on the outside looking in, then at least very near the back, despite his huge success and large following (2.4 million followers on Twitter for example). This slight outsider persona is perhaps because he has been part of geek culture for such a long time, and seen it switch from dorky to cool, and it is clearly a culture he enjoys and celebrates:
“a lot of what I’m talking about all the way through the book is what, when I first started writing, would’ve been referred to as “junk culture.” I’m writing with, I hope, critical enthusiasm about things that people may have started to care about now but definitely didn’t care about when I began writing about them: Fantasy and science fiction, children’s books, comics. You never feel anywhere in any of those essays that you are getting the view from the fancy seats at the front. All of the stuff I’m writing about here is slightly on the disreputable side. So I like the idea of the title, it is the view from the cheap seats.”
The Guardian agrees:
Essay after essay in The View from the Cheap Seats are on Gaiman’s view on contemporary storytelling, but told from its epicentre, the belly of the beast. It is a love letter to geek culture, packed full of Gaiman’s musings and reflections on his time creating in the field, as well as insights into some of its greatest figures – Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Douglas Adams. Gaiman remembers them as close friends, while simultaneously revering as a fan. He writes fondly of the bliss of immersion in fictional worlds, novels, comics, movies and games, the gravitational force around which planet geek has formed. He even recalls his 12-year-old self reading Lord of the Rings for the first time and believing it “the best book that ever could be written”. It is this side of geekery, the “traditional” writing that evolved from the likes of Tolkien that Gaiman pays tribute to here.
Brainpickings devoted an article to the book also, focusing on “why we read, and how speculative storytelling enlarges our humanity”, concluding that:
The View from the Cheap Seats is a tremendous read in its totality — an electrifying packet of that “fierce sort of familiar joy” full of Gaiman’s beautifully articulated beliefs about such centralities of the human experience as art, gender, fear, and community, alongside his reflections on and homages to friends, heroes, and kindred spirits like Terry Pratchett, Charles Vess, Douglas Adams, and Tori Amos.
Neil Gaiman is a fun guy to learn more about and follow online. You can join his millions of followers on Twitter and check-in often to his website where posts are frequently submitted to the Journal. As a fan of the monthly Seminars on Long Term Thinking I definitely recommend his talk on the timelessness of stories. And for a more behind the scenes and quirky insight to how Gaiman’s mind works, there is a fun post and video on Brainpickings on how his wife Amanda Palmer recorded a voice memo on her phone of a strange dream Gaiman was having where he was talking to her in a semi-conscious state.
The View from the Cheap Seats
by Neil Gaiman
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