The View from the Cheap Seats

June 28, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

viewThe View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

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More and more as I read Neil Gaiman’s work, I find myself thinking that Neil Gaiman would make an excellent friend. It’s not that he’s famous or a brilliant writer that makes me think so, but that there’s an honesty and sincerity to his work that makes me feel like that honesty and sincerity comes through in his personal life, as well. This is especially true of his nonfiction, which has a style that’s conversational and personal, drawing you in as if you’re sitting across from each other at a dinner table.

By habit, I’m not much of a reader of short stories. It’s not that I dislike shorter works — I’ve read some novellas that are better than some of the longest books I’ve read — but anthologies and collections take me longer to read because I feel the need to sit and think and digest what I’ve just read before moving on to the next book in line. I make exceptions, of course (Neil Gaiman is one of but a handful of my “Read all the things!” authors), but for the most part, I’m more interested in standalone works than anthologized works.

The View from the Cheap Seats, being nonfiction, isn’t a collection of short stories, but it is a collection of short works, most of which are written to make you think, so the same rule applies. Reading one essay or speech or introduction or appreciation or review and then diving into the next one is a bit of a shock, like going from the hot-tub directly into the pool. They require processing and appreciating, especially when Gaiman hits you with something profound, like “…discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontent” (and there are a lot of those “something profound”s in this book). As the book progresses into appreciations and reviews, they become easier to read through, but the different themes and focuses of the pieces force you to slow down and take your time with the book.

(That being said, I finished this book in four days, which isn’t a record, but neither is it an insignificant amount of time.)

Also, Gaiman writes with lots of commas, emdashes, and parenthetical asides, forcing the reader to pause at each one. This isn’t a bad thing (at least, I hope not, since I’m a frequent users of all those things, as well), but it’s interesting to note that he acknowledges this habit in one of his pieces. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Gaiman has had a huge impact on me as a reader and a writer, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that I picked up these techniques from his works. Besides, I’ve realized I have a habit of picking up on other people’s verbal tics and incorporating them into my own speech, so it’s not like I haven’t done this sort of thing before.

My usual approach to reviewing anthologies and collections is to write a brief thought about each piece, but here, I’ve foregone that approach. For one, not all pieces here are worthy of a summary or review (not that they’re poorly written or anything like that; some are just so short as to not be noteworthy in the literal definition of the word, and others are about works about which I lack the proper context to evaluate); for another, there are over one hundred pieces in this collection. Writing something about each piece would grow repetitive, and wind up being longer than the average person would want to read.

What you can expect, though, is Gaiman’s usual analytical probing of all things story, his own and others. Whether he’s talking about the business of comics, Cassandra-like to a room full of publishers, meeting people who are friends and idols (sometimes both), or giving us a peek into how he develops his stories, his insights are keen, his observations apt. Even if I don’t know enough about the authors and stories for which he writes introductions, I can’t deny that he has an understanding of story that he shares with his reader. That understanding will likely drive readers to pursue some of the books and authors he writes about in these pages.

Because this is a collection of nonfiction pieces written over twenty years, it’s inevitable that readers will find repetition. We will, more than once, hear about Gaiman’s yearly end-of-school trip to the comics shop that was in someone’s basement; we’ll revisit his inspiration of and research for American Gods at least twice; and we’ll even see more than one version of the same speech, as he develops them over time and experience. For casual readers, this might be a little annoying, but I’m not sure that this book is intended for casual readers. The View from the Cheap Seats is for people who want to know more about Gaiman and what makes him special, and what makes him special is his unique voice, his personable approach, and his profound understanding of story.

The final section of this anthology collects his writings about real people, and that understanding of story applies here, too, as an understanding of story requires an understanding of people. He tells us the story of Amanda Palmer as half of the Dresden Dolls, of the lives of Syrian refugees, of an author out of place and unwilling to be at the Oscars, of another author seen as a jovial fellow whose writings were fueled by anger and fury. Because this is what Gaiman does best: tell stories. Whether the people whose stories he tells are fictional or real is irrelevant; he tells, and we listen.

One thing I really really like about this book is that one of my pet phrases for the last twenty years has been “Fiction tells us the truth by lying to us”, and in one of the first pieces in the book, Gaiman writes “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.” It convinces me we’d be like this if we ever met in real life.

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