Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats (2016)

It’s been some time since my last actual review. I’ve been busy lately, true, but not much more than usual. I’ve actually been reading quite a lot. But now I squeeze reading into smaller bits of free time, it’s harder to find time enough to also write.

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I considered writing about The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, a delightful book already reviewed on Re-E by Ola, 5 years ago. I read it quite recently and it proved to be just as good as she claimed. Good enough I might even agree with the 9.5/10 score, and my opinion is not sufficiently different to warrant a separate post.

Then, I remembered I recently read The View from the Cheap Seats – Gaiman’s selected non-fiction. I’ve already written about a similar collection of Pratchett’s texts, and Gaiman’s foreword to that one is included here, so we have a nice connection.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Title: The View from the Cheap Seats

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 532

 

For Ash, who is new,

for when he is grown.

These were some of the things

your father loved and said

and cared about and believed,

a long time ago.

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Yes, that’s exactly what this tome is about. And the English edition’s cover show it in a very nice way. We get into what created, inspired and moves him, at least from his perspective. American cover actually looks pretty good, but standard. And the seats there do not look that cheap 😉

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It took me some time to pick this up, as it’s over 500 pages. Bought back when it was published, in 2016, it waited for its time. Recently, I decided I will always have a volume of essays or suchlike on hand, for when I have time enough for just a little bit of reading. But I ended up reading this exclusively, from the first page to the last.

This is a king of book published for people already familiar with its author. To appreciate it, you need to enjoy his style, and be at least sympathetic towards his causes. It’s not a political book, but some politics is there. It’s mostly autobiography though, music, books and comics.

This really is a volume of selected non-fiction. Speeches, press articles, forewords… some written in the early nineties. some quite recent. It’s divided into ten parts, and their titles tell the reader what’s to be expected. Some things I believe, Some people I have known, Introductions and musings, On comics and some of the people who make them or Music and the people who make it, to name only some of them.

I like Gaiman. I like most of his things I’ve read and I like the persona he lets us see in his public appearances. I like his taste in music. On Spotify, I have several playlists based on his recommendations. He taught me to appreciate Lou Reed (I listened quite a lot, Tori Amos, and thanks to him I discovered The Magnetic Fields. And Amanda Palmer, here they perform together. I like his views on genre, on value of art. There are some writers I adore as writers, Gaiman is one of the few ones I also follow as public intellectual.

American Gods is a statement about America, Good Omens delve quite deep into history and religion. It’s not party politics, but it’s often story with meaning that can be easily applied to the very real world around us. his friendship with Terry Pratchett was no accident.

As he declared himself:

“I still don’t think of myself as a hugely political writer,” but explained a bit about his personal politics, saying that “in British terms, I am somewhere in the fuzzy middle, of ‘why can’t we all be nice to each other?’, and ‘I really don’t like people exploiting other people” – yet in American terms, he said, “that puts me so far to the left of any political party that my politics out there are considered irrelevant”.

The Guardian

Gaiman started as a journalist, and there are traces of it in here. Even as an established writer, he occasionally interviewed his colleagues, such as Stephen King. I conversation I really like, not included in this selection, but available on New Statesman page, is with Kazuo Ishiguro soon after he published The Buried Giant. Ishiguro was baffled by something that often happens to literary writers that ventured into the realms of genre:

Kazuo Ishiguro: I felt like I’d stepped into some larger discussion that had been going on for some time. I expected some of my usual readers to say, “What’s this? There are ogres in it . . .” but I didn’t anticipate this bigger debate. Why are people so preoccupied? What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?

NG I think if you were a novelist writing in 1920 or 1930, you would simply be perceived as having written another novel. When Dickens published A Christmas Carol nobody went, “Ah, this respectable social novelist has suddenly become a fantasy novelist: look, there are ghosts and magic.”

In the beginning, there’s a bit about Gaiman’s history as a reader and a beginning writer. Not directly, but through small text dealing with such topics as libraries, favourite genres, risks of reading some books too early – as a kid he read whatever he could get, not caring about suggested ages, and I have to admit I always had the same approach. Which later led him to suggesting a King novel to a daughter apparently not ready, and made me show Coraline to my niece a year or three too early. I still believe that most books can safely be read earlier than official age categories would allow. In the words of Gaiman:

There were things I read as a boy that troubled me, but nothing that ever made me want to stop reading. I understood that we discovered what our limits were by going beyond them, and then nervously retreating to our places of comfort once more, and growing, and changing, and becoming someone else. Becoming, eventually, adult.

Genre

According to Gaiman genre novel is one where the tropes of the genre are the centrepiece, without which the reader of the viewer would feel cheated, the rest being additions that lead you from lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight, or I could add, from a farmboy learning sword fighting to a battle with evil wizards. Genre is a set of assumptions, a loose contract between the creator and the audience. Which does not automatically make it bad literature, obviously.

Myths

American Gods tell us, among other things, how Gaiman sees the role of myths in culture. Here, we have a much shorter version, so he has to spell it out loud:

Myths are compost. They begin as religions, the most deeply held of beliefs, or as stories that accrete to religions as they grow. (…) and then, as religions fall into disuse, or the stories cease to be seen as the literal truth, they become myths. And the myths compost down to dirt, and become a fertile ground for other stories and tales which blossom like wildflowers.

It’s also mentioned how modern myths help us deal with complexities of modern world, and, unsurprisingly, how that can be translated into literature 🙂

Inspirations

But mostly this is a book that inspired me to expand my ever growing TBR even further. More than that! I actually read quite a bit already.

My first Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday, excellent! feels quite modern, and also like a crossover of Jerome Jerome and Conrad)

A few Eisner comics – of various quality, I have to admit, but overall – a win.

And now I’m finally reading Viriconium. Gonna take a while, it’s a tough one, but a powerful book, with unmatched atmosphere.

Even more were added to the list for future reading… some already bought.

*

It’s a treasure chest of many different things that do not have to be read all at once. Some of them are heart-warming, some inspirational, some might make you sad. I say they’re worth it.

33 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats (2016)

  1. I wish everyone who thought “can’t we all just get along” would be put in their own little country. Then Syria, or North Korea could show them the reality of the world they live in. *censored* people like this expect all the benefits of people giving their lives to keep them safe and ignoring all the extremely dirty things that big countries do and then whine and bitch.

    Sorry….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Oh, it’s ok. I don’t think he’s that naive, even if he’s to the left of both of us 😉 There’s a short piece from Guardian about Syria, actually, where he clearly shows an understanding of the complexity of the situation – although it’s a reflection on the fragility of civilization, not a call for invasion.

      Politically, he’s not your guy. But he is not simple-minded…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I got interested in Gaiman through Sandman. I’m old–and lucky–enough to have bought it monthly, all those years ago. I think the first half of his run on Sandman is some of the best “genre” storytelling in any format. This led me to the wonderful Good Omens–miss you Terry!–and also to some of Gaiman’s short stories. (I always enjoyed his Lovecraftian homages). I used to read everything he released, but have fallen away over more recent times. I think he has lost some of his magic, but that could just be me getting older and more jaded.

    Gaiman’s recommendations led me to Chesterton, too. Also, Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones and M. John Harrison. I still haven’t read Viriconium but will get to it one day. Sorry for waffling on. I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your review and you have got me thinking about Neil Gaiman again–and his recommendations. This book sounds like something I need to read, thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. piotrek

      So, our experience is quite similar, although I started Sandman a decade later.

      Thanks! Yes, such books (and Pratchett’s “A Slip of the Keyboard” is quite similar), are great for getting to know a writer better, and expanding your TBR even further 🙂

      Viriconium is great, but I have to take it in moderate doses. I’m 1/3 in, and I love it, but I don’t think I’ll finish this month…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. On myths: I fail to see how they are useful for today’s complexities. Most myths are short and simple, too simple to apply to real world complexity, unless one means that simplifying things sheds light on them.

    I read that Neil ditched Amanda Palmer & their kid in New Zealand just before lockdown? There has been quite some fuss about it on social media, but didn’t really pay attention.

    Btw, M. John Harrison has a new book coming out in a few days. Must still read Viroconum though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      I’m determined not to care about personal lives of celebrities, but I have to admit the news made me sad… apparently, it’s complicated, not final and I opt to give them their privacy…

      I have to say I’m enjoying Viriconium a lot, more than I did his short stories, but it’s a tough nut to crack, it will take some time to finish.

      Myths… well, I don’t think we can escape them. As a species, it’s how we deal with excessive complexity of reality and with the fact our brains are too big to be completely occupied with getting sex and food today… and in that way they are a helpful mechanism.

      I’ve obtained the Rosenberg’s book (although it will have to wait a bit on the shelf), I’m definitely not defending myths as epistemological tools. I don’t think we can realistically expect to ever eliminate them, I see them as one of the planes of society that just is there. As my favourite semiotician of culture writes, when we neglect this plane we simply give it up for the others to dominate. It’s not possible to defeat myths, but they can be shaped to work one way, or another.

      But from the storyteller’s perspective, they are just perfect tools 🙂 And Gaiman is a master at using them…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Generally the personal lives of artists don’t influence my opinion about their work. I also generally don’t care about celebrities, but I’m not immune to a bit of gossip, especially not if one of the parties communicates very openly about her side of the story she wants to spin. But you are right, I’m sure stuff is way more complicated from what leaks through.

        Yeah, the lenght is wat scares me a bit about Viriconium, and I guess it should be read as a whole nowadays. Did you read his new collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now (2017)? If not, it’s very diverse, and I think also different enough from his older work to peak your interest. My review is here: https://wp.me/p1tcLv-6xV.

        If you take ‘myth’ as a broad enough term, you right, except that I’m sure about that big brain causality. Hunter gathereres are occupied with food, shelter & sex 100% of the time and they have myths too. I think it has more to do with the fact that our pattern recognition algoritms can’t be shut down. Size isn’t the issue I think.

        Is your favourite semiotician Giaman? What does he mean with “the others”?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. piotrek

          I’ve read “You Should Come…”, after your review 🙂 Really liked it, but I like Viriconium more 🙂

          I was talking about Marcin Napiórkowski, a Polish semiotician whose blog “Contemporary Mythology” is one of my favourite places in the Polish Internet… and the “others” here means people who appreciate importance of myths, in debates concerning vaccines, science in general, or politics. In Poland, usually right-wingers, who manipulate public imagination best… his thesis is we (liberal, science-respecting center) should find a way to create our own myths, not hope the public will be able to do without them….

          Like

  4. Sooner or later, I’ll give this a try. While Gaiman’s writing is a mixed bag for me, I appreciate his scope of thought and his general knowledge – as well as his love for myths, which I consider essential to human cognitive processes.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. piotrek

      Thank you 🙂 Have you read about Lem vs Kolakowski decades long quarrel on more or less that issue? Lem, a hardcode sf writer, vs Kolakowski’s humanistic approach (and a bit of personal dislike 😉 ). There was a piece in Tygodnik Powszechny recently…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I haven’t! We’ll, knowing both, I’m pretty sure where my personal preference (and allegiance, ultimately!) lies… 😀 If you have the article, please send it over!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I am yet to read a Gaiman, from what I have seen of his persona and how he handles himself on screen some times makes me feel like punching him in the head. But hey no one is perfect… Great review mate.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s quite nice to see you with a post here. I think we need to celebrate these moments so that you can make a habit out of it! 😛

    I’m a fan of Gaiman’s writing and ideas but not much of his execution. I sort of share Ola’s stance on him. His creativity and love for mythologies are contagious. This piece does sound intriguing and from the sound of it, seems to be an excellent one for hardcore fans to indulge the man behind the pen.

    Thanks for sharing, sir.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Thanks! Well, we have two two-shots planned for July, so hopefully I’ll mark my presence 🙂

      Well, some of his ideas are here in condensed form, but yes – it’s more of Gaiman, and not even hidden behind his characters, so not for everybody 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I have Fragile Things to read first, and a couple of other Gaiman rereads, but from your quotes and comments I see that I shall have to acquire this when I next come across it, thanks a bunch!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Well, it’s not a wholly “recent” book, some of the texts are quite old… but if you’re a bit tired of Gaiman, wait a few years 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This was a very interesting review! I have Pratchett’s book on my TBR but I never heard of this one before!!
    It is true that I have quite the complex relationship with Gaiman, because I love the ideas behind his books, and I find him brilliant when he writes for children, but the “adults” book aren’t for me. I always find them lacking, in a way or another. It is not that I dislike them, but I never like them as much as I was hoping. But I don’t know him as an intellectual and you made me think that it would be a good idea starting to do it. This book seems interesting and the quotes you used in there were intriguing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thanks 🙂 This on is interesting, and it will expand your TBR even further 😉

      Gaiman… I haven’t read all of his books, but I have several I really like, and Sandman is one of my favourite comics, so I was eager to read this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Re the cheap seats: don’t let the faux velvet and fancy wallpaper fool you. The seat coils are probably sprung. Also, look at how narrow the seats are, and at how Gaiman’s legs are pulled in so close — no room to stretch out. The only fortunate thing for him is that no one else is nearby. Even in pre-Covid days, an empty seat on either side was a luxury: no one to wrestle with over the armrest.
    As for his personal life, I’m with you. Those of us who aren’t famous take our privacy for granted — even to the point of being cavalier about how much of it we share on social media.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. buriedinprint

    I’m not a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s, but I’m enjoyed the books of his I’ve read and I keep meaning to make a more concerted effort to explore his backlist. (Unlike most Sandman readers, I only read a couple, and not in order, so I never quite felt like I knew what all the fuss was about, despite loving the palette and feel to the stories.) I love it when the thing that you’ve described happens with a book, when you are certain that you know how it should be read, as in this instance, in small bits when you have small bits of time, and then the book surprises you, clears its throat, and says “no, no, no…HERE is the way in which I will be read by you”.

    Liked by 1 person

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