Book review

Love Neil Gaiman the novelist? So do we, but did he really have to write these childish essays?

And when the star of fantasy fiction sells his work as a view from the cheap seats, no one's buying it.

John Lennon once said, “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery.” Neil Gaiman’s new book of selected non-fiction calls itself The View From the Cheap Seats, but you get the distinct feeling he is rattling his jewellery.

The collection takes its name from an article about going to the Oscars and being stuck on the first mezzanine. Gaiman had attended the year Coraline, based on a book written by him, was up for Best Animated Feature. There is a lot of being bemused and stepping on Rachel McAdams’s beautiful watercolour dress. Gaiman notes that nobody asked for his autograph or took his pictures.

It's hard to take a starry-eyed Gaiman

The bestselling author may be lost in a galaxy of Hollywood A-listers but everyone knows he is one of the literary stars of our generation, a celebrity in most of the English-speaking world, a permanent exhibit in the science fiction and fantasy hall of fame. Most authors would not publish this book unless they were assured of a devoted fan following. Most people will buy this book only because they want to hear Neil Gaiman saying things.

Besides, when writing about art and authors, Gaiman’s is no view from the cramped corner of an auditorium, with the stage at an odd angle and people’s heads in your line of vision. His is the ringside view, the first row seat, often the vantage point of the lectern. There are personal anecdotes about legends such as Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Alan Moore and Stephen King. Gaiman is happily ensconced in a sort of old boy’s club of fantasy. There are also speeches made at a variety of high profile literary events. So when Gaiman sells his collected essays as a view from the cheap seats, no one’s buying it.

“It’s not every speech, introduction or article I’ve written, but it’s all the speeches that seemed important, all the articles I was still proud of, all the introductions that seemed to be about something bigger than just telling people about the book or author they were going to read,” Gaiman announced on his blog before the book was published. The result is 500-and-odd pages of well-meant but repetitive writing that can make for a painfully slow read. The book is divided into 10 parts, including “Some Things I Believe In”, “Some People I know”, “Introductions and Musings: Science Fiction”, “Introductions and Contradictions”, sections on comics, movies and musicians.

Was it really necessary to include “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at Pro-Con, April 1997”, a condensed self-help guide for aspiring writers, as well as “Make Good Art”, a rather moving pep talk, also addressed to aspiring writers? The Newbery medal speech of 2009 as well as the Harvey Awards acceptance speech of 2004? Reflections on Diana Wynne Jones as well as an introduction to her book, Dogsbody, also containing reflections on Diana Wynne Jones? This book needed an editor and not even Gaiman’s glorious, singing prose can save it from monotony.

WH Auden asked Yeats to “follow right” and with his “unconstraining voice/ Still persuade us to rejoice”. Gaiman seems to have the same touching faith in the poetic voice. But Auden wrote nearly eight decades ago and the poetic voice must work harder to persuade a less innocent world.

Such simplification doesn't suit you, Neil

Gaiman the spinner of tales, the author of Fragile Things and Sandman, is surprising, lyrical and filled with wonder. But Gaiman the essayist is filled with oracular statements of childlike simplicity about Why Authors Write and What Books Do. After a while, it gets old. Especially when served up with slightly unreconstructed political views about freedom of speech in the time of Charlie Hebdo and alarming assumptions about people who read books being less likely to enter a life of crime.

Other authors and artists are described in this collection with the same sense of uncritical wonder. Most of them are wild-haired and “ferociously intelligent”. Readers learn little about their work apart from the fact that it is very good. Where the childlike simplicity does work, however, is when Gaiman actually talks about childhood. He has not forgotten the hunger and cruelty of a child’s mind, what reading children can absorb and what they reject. You see the dark materials that went into so many books loved by children.

Through successive essays, you can also piece together Gaiman’s story of himself – the fiercely private child who saved up money to buy his favourite fantasy and science fiction books at the end of the term, whose imagination and intelligence would not be contained by schools and classrooms, who gave up on institutions, tried working in the real world for a while, then retired to “make things up” and marry a rockstar. Along the way, he meets like-minded people and is absorbed into a tightly knit community of writers and artists, some of whom had been his childhood heroes.

As far as stories of artistic genius go, it is a familiar one, especially in the mythologies of fantasy and science fiction - and Gaiman is keenly aware of genre, even when he is rejecting it. It has much to do with how the genre has fashioned itself, belonging neither to high culture nor to low, bridging the popular and the profound, written and read by a community of the secret faithful. It explains why Gaiman counts himself among the mavericks and the misfits, the weirdos sitting at the back of the class, destined for the cheap seats.

The View From the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman, Headline Publishing.

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