Need a speech for your nerdy convention? Reflective bon mots for an awards ceremony? Advice for art school graduates? Reflections on Ray Bradbury, “The Bride of Frankenstein” or Doctor Who? Liner notes for an album by They Might Be Giants?
Occasional writer Neil Gaiman is your go-to guy for all manner of occasions.
I don’t mean Gaiman writes occasionally. Far from it. The beloved, British-born fantasist is nothing if not prolific. He’s published more than 20 book-length works, ranging from the comic book series “The Sandman,” novels such “American Gods,” “Stardust,” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” and the children’s novels “The Graveyard Book” and “Coraline,” not to mention short stories, kid’s picture books, poems, and screenplays.
Yet Gaiman has also churned out dozens of short nonfiction pieces for a variety of occasions. More than 80 are collected in “The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction.”
Now a professor at Bard College and husband of boundary-pushing musician Amanda Palmer (herself a Lexington native), Gaiman first cut his writerly teeth as a journalist. “I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up,” he writes in the book’s introduction. Gaiman has, and successfully so.
The occasions for these pieces, most of them from this century, are as eclectic as you might expect from this daring sorcerer of the dark and outré. There are musings that first appeared in anthologies, literary magazines, and newspapers; keynote addresses given at literary societies and horror conventions; forewords to collections of H.P. Lovecraft, Jack Kirby, and Diana Wynne Jones; and anecdotes, tributes, and interviews featuring Gaiman confidants and idols Tori Amos, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, and Lou Reed. There’s even “Easter Egg” text that pops up in the video game SimCity 2000. During a literary charity lecture, he issues directives like, “We have an obligation to read aloud to our children.” At a conference for comic-book professionals, he dishes one-liners such as “[c]orporations are huge, slow, stupid lumbering things with brains in their tails.” In one of the best-known talks reprinted here, “Make Good Art,” given as a commencement address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he doles out advice. Some of it wise (“If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet”); some, less so (“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong.”).
The downside of reading such speeches, however, is this: They were written for a specific place and time and for a specific audience and purpose. Minus the caps and gowns, laughter from the audience, and Gaiman’s accent and genial tone, the text of talks like “Make Good Art” lose much of their magic. Contrast that with the collection’s best written and reported pieces, such as the eponymous essay, which drolly captures his Oscar awards experiences. Or, one of the book’s most powerful pieces, “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now,” based on Gaiman’s insightful reportage from a Jordanian refugee camp. (Both are undermined slightly by Gaiman’s reminding us of the power of his social media presence. OK, we get that you have 2.4 million Twitter followers.)
Then again it is largely to his fans that this wide-ranging, hit-or-miss rag bag seems directed. Gaiman geeks will delight in picking through the bones for meaty autobiographical bits. In a “guest of honor” speech at a conference called MythCon, Gaiman admits that reading J.R.R. Tolkien as a 12-year-old made him want to be the writer of that book: “eventually [I] came to the conclusion that the best thing would be if, while holding a copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ I slipped into a parallel universe in which Professor Tolkien had not existed. And then I would get someone to retype the book.”
Above all, “The View from the Cheap Seats” serves as a spirited defense of reading, art, and the imagination. Escapist fiction “opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that),” he says in a 2013 lecture called “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”
Stories are far from frivolous. As you read, you gather what’s “vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this,” Gaiman says, his key salvo in all caps: “THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.” Amen, brother.William Morrow, 522 pp., $26.99
THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS: Selected Nonfiction
By Neil Gaiman