Book review: The View from the Cheap Seats

His first book was a biography of Duran Duran, but Neil Gaiman quickly moved into the comic book world and from there to a successful multi-media career in fantasy and sci fi.

Neil Gaiman

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NEIL GAIMAN is the ultimate nice guy, an English-born writer now living in the US, who quickly moved on from music journalism to become a hugely successful writer of fiction for children and sometimes adults. 

He was a pioneer of the graphic novel when they were still called “comics” back in the 1990s (Sandman, American Gods), a writer of Young Adult fiction before the category had been invented. 

Several of his stories, which tend to fantasy and sci-fi have been made into Hollywood films and cartoons.

He has also won numerous awards for science fiction and children’s writing and adult fiction including the Newbery Medal (2009); his adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane won the National Book Award Book of the Year. 

He has collaborated with famous writers including Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, the musicians Tori Amos and Amanda Palmer (who became his second wife in 2011) written film scripts for Dr Who and interviewed Stephen King, Lou Reed, and other former teenage heros. His favourite Lou Reed song is ‘Perfect Day’.

A tall, slim figure with tousled hair, usually dressed in black, with a charming, mildly self-deprecating way of speaking, he looks more like a rock star than a writer. 

In 2011 he appeared as himself in an episode of The Simpsons, which indicates the level of fame and recognition he has in the US. 

He is an excellent public speaker, and the video of his 2012 commencement speech, reproduced here as Make Good Art has been watched online, he tells us, “many millions of times”.

This huge doorstop of a book, 532 pages long, contains his non-fiction writing, which is largely journalism of one kind of another — introductions to his own and other people’s books, speeches and other occasional writings, short pieces about writing, music, film, comics and, most recently, the Syran refugee crisis — in short, more or less anything he and his team of researchers could find. 

It is dedicated to his newborn son: “For Ash who is new, for when he is grown. There were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed a long time ago.”

He sets out his basic beliefs in the first piece which is called Credo, basically a standard plea for free speech, first published in the Guardian. 

For example: “I believe you have every right to be perfectly certain that images of god or prophet or human that you revere are sacred, and undefilable, just as I have the right to be certain of the sacredness of speech, and of the sanctity of the right to mock, comment, to argue and to utter.” 

For some reason, the editors fail to point out that this was first published 12 days after the killings of journalists and cartoonists in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Gaiman is not afraid to be sentimental, and perhaps this is one reason why he is so enormously popular. 

He writes in a chatty, undemanding style, stating his case simply and clearly, so that a child could understand him. 

We are all treated as if we have a reading age of about 11, and I am not sneering at this, in fact at first it was quite relaxing. 

When a journalist asks him what is the purpose of a fairy tale he answers: “It’s like an ice cream. It’s to make you feel happy when you finish it.” His non-fiction has a similar effect in small doses.

Born in 1960, Gaiman had the same sort of dull suburban upbringing as most of his readers, though apparently he read more. 

He tells the story several times of how, during school holidays, his parents dropped him off at his local library in the morning and picked him up on their way home from work. 

He worked his way through the children’s library, discovering Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, CS Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, and moving on seamlessly to the adult library and Edgar Allan Poe, Dennis Wheatley, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K le Guin, and other names from the world of science fiction and fantasy. He was an early admirer of Stephen King. As he puts it:

“The golden age of sci fi is when you’re 12.”

When he left school he did not bother with further studies, but straight away set about earning his living as a writer, reviewing books, interviewing musicians and seeking advice from established writers whose work he liked. 

His first book was a biography of the band Duran Duran, but he quickly moved into the comic book world and from there to his successful multi-media career in fantasy and sci fi.

Gaiman likes to make simple assertions, that sound good, but actually have very little substance. 

Here he is on literacy: “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.” 

On why he gave up journalism for writing fiction: “I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up.” 

On why there is no need to censor children’s books: “Kids censor their own reading, and dullness is the ultimate deterrent.” 

His enthusiasms and gripes, even the rhythm of his sentences, become increasingly predictable and unchallenging, like flicking through a giant magazine, without the colour pictures. I think it is called “easy reading”.

Like many writers of his generation, Gaiman denies ever having had a career. 

As he says in the course of a long interview with Stephen King for the Sunday Times in 2012, “Writers do not have careers, most of us. We just write the next book.”

He gets on brilliantly with King, whom he has of course met before, and whom he interviews in his waterfront house in Florida. 

They share a strong work ethic, the ability to tell a cracking story, and an indifference to the so-called “high life”.

Gaiman quotes King’s observation on the money he earns as writer: ‘They pay me absurd amounts of money for something that I would do for free.’

There are generous tributes to other writers who have predeceased Gaiman, and sound advice on coping with Edgar Allan Poe’s ornate prose: read it aloud. High and low culture, he says, are not opposites to be reconciled, but different ways of addressing the same ideas.

The title piece, The View from the Cheap Seats, is an account of attending the Oscars as the guest of the director of the film of his book, Coraline, and being forced to sit among the nobodies in the first mezzanine, not among the stars. 

The Guardian published it under the title A Nobody’s Guide to the Oscars, which tellingly, Gaiman did not like.

Probably the best piece in the whole book is the penultimate one entitled So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014, an account of a visit made by Gaiman and his friend, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, at the invitation of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to a gigantic refugee camp in Jordan. Here he faces up to the grim reality of people who have fled their homes in order to survive, and it makes him cry.

He becomes, suddenly, likable.


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