Issue #263 – The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

This is Neil’s third time on Off The Shelf, but it’s for a good reason. Each time I’ve visited his work I’ve tried to look at a different facet of his storytelling. His fiction with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and his retelling of others fiction with Norse Mythology, and now his nonfiction. But make no mistake, this is still storytelling we’re talking about.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of essays, introductions, and speeches from over the years, covering a wide variety of topics—everything from art and artists, to dreams, myths, and memories. They were written to introduce famous authors or remember those who have passed. They are about his own life experiences or those of others.

What carries these and binds these all together is Gaiman’s distinctive style, which feels simultaneously like a lecture and an intimate one-on-one chat. He is a consummate observer of human nature, and his wit and wisdom show through on every page.

There are over sixty pieces included in the book, divided into categories of interest and often chronologically connected in some fashion. An idea discussed in one essay might become a project discussed in the next as it develops, and then looked back upon in the one after that.

There is something about Gaiman’s style that shines through regardless of what he’s writing. If you were to read this and the two other books I’ve reviewed, it wouldn’t be hard to tell they were all written by the same author.

This is not a bad thing. Gaiman is not trying to be a chameleon, blending into whatever role is assigned to him. In everything he does he is a storyteller. He is himself. The characters, on the other hand, can be as wild and varied as they need to be, and speak with their own voice, but the narrative? That always belongs to Gaiman.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a rather apt name. While someone with premium seats in a theater will have the best view of the actors and stage, those in the cheap seats get to see things that they do not—the audience, the theatre, perhaps even a peek behind the stage that others will miss. These stories are, ultimately, observations about writing, writers, and readers. It’s a man at the back of the theater, taking a moment between scenes to appreciate everything and everyone around him.

The book starts off with him talking about himself as a reader rather than a writer. He talks about the importance of libraries, the bookshops he’s loved and why, thoughts about mythology, and more. He also has interesting views on the nature of growing up as a reader and why reading books as a child is fundamentally different from reading them as an adult.

“You don’t discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer them to read. And not everyone has the same taste as you.”

It’s an important reminder that for everyone at every age there is a first time, and a story or idea that may seem cliché and unoriginal to you will be someone else’s first. And that’s something to be appreciated.

After that is a section where he talks about other authors, either as introductions to their books, as speeches at award ceremonies or conventions, and even an interview with Stephen King.

He then looks at science fiction, both the genre and some well known (and not so well known but nevertheless influential) names in the field. I have to say, having read many of the authors Gaiman talks about, it’s interesting to see his own (admittedly much deeper) view of their work and impact. It also exposed me to names I’d never heard before, but now wanted to go out and read them right away.

A whole section is dedicated to comics and the comics industry. This is a fascinating part of the book because it not only looks at the writing of comics and the collaborative nature of it, but also the industry, including the great comic book bubble and crash in the 90s, which he predicted years in advance (comparing it quite appropriately to the tulip bubble of Holland in the 1600s).

And sometimes what he writes about doesn’t directly have to do with writing at all. But no matter what he’s writing about, Gaiman grabs your attention in a warm and cozy way. This really is the kind of book you can imagine reading by a lit fireplace.

The one thing I will say is that this is not a book to be read by someone who is unfamiliar with the author. It’s best enjoyed by those with at least some experience with his work. Anyone who is a fan will enjoy this look at the man as he shares with us what he wants to share. And at times it’s a very candid and personal look.

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