Neil Gaiman has long enjoyed a reputation as one of speculative fiction’s finest and most successful writers. From his groundbreaking work on The Sandman comic series to his award-winning fiction and screenwriting to the upcoming American Gods series on the STARZ network, Gaiman has built a long and varied career. Eight novels, three short story collections, Doctor Who scripts, children’s books, you name it: he’s come a long way since his days of conning his way (by his own account) into early freelance writing jobs.
What often gets less attention is his assorted and plentiful nonfiction work. The View From the Cheap Seats aims to gather the best of that output — essays, speeches, introductions, eulogies, and more — under one cover.
That’s not to say that his nonfiction hasn’t made waves of its own in the past. His prescient “Good Comics and Tulips” leads off the book’s “On Comics and Some of the People Who Make Them” section, and should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the speculator mentality that drives various investing bubbles. Using the Dutch tulip craze of the 1600s as a jumping-off point, Gaiman neatly ties that frenzy to the investment / speculation mania that gripped comics in the mid ’90s. In short, he says, “any organization or store that pushes comics as investment items is at best shortsighted and foolish, and at worst, immoral and dumb”. The speech, given at a Diamond Comics retail seminar, is more concerned with championing quality comics via a list of what Gaiman considers good practices (including, as a creator, saying “no”, which he knew even back then he had a problem with), but the tulip analogy gained a lot of traction as a fitting autopsy of the comics bubble.
His 2012 commencement speech, “Make Good Art”, receives even more of a spotlight, receiving its own one-item section here. Gaiman notes that it’s one of the most popular things he’s ever done, going viral on the Internet and birthing a niche cottage industry of inspirational “sloganed” items. The speech finds Gaiman touching on some of his core beliefs, including the need to make art and keep moving forward no matter what, with practical advice that he’s learned along the way, such as the three qualities you need (and really, he says, you can get away with any combination of two) to succeed as a freelancer (as well as many other trades). In the speech, he’s quick to recount past mistakes and hold himself up as a model of what not to do, using that mantra of “make good art” as an ever-focusing rallying cry to find his own way in his career.
It’s that deep-rooted sense of what Gaiman believes — even after you get past the book’s first section appropriately titled “Some Things I Believe” — that informs nearly every piece in The View From the Cheap Seats. His defenses of libraries, reading, and literature come from a strict aversion to the idea of education as a quantifiable product or commodity, but rather something that makes the reader and, by extension, society greater.
Likewise, Gaiman’s expertise and authority on books goes without saying. In addition to the years spent learning his own craft, he grew up as a voracious reader. Consequently, his appraisals of books are often about their contributions to the field, but also what they meant — and continue to mean — to him as a reader, as well as what he feels they mean in the bigger picture. His friendship with many writing luminaries also gives him a unique perspective on them as people rather than rarified birds in some literary cage.
In the days following Terry Pratchett’s death, for example, many writers properly eulogized him and expressed their admiration for Pratchett’s Discworld series, his Good Omens collaboration with Gaiman, and other projects. Gaiman, however, (in an introduction to Pratchett’s A Slip of the Keyboard nonfiction collection published while Pratchett was ailing but still alive) offered the skeleton key to understanding why Pratchett’s humor hit as hard as it did. Like Monty Python and so many other gifted comedians, Pratchett’s humor blossomed from his anger at the injustices of the world. As with “Make Good Art”, Gaiman takes a lesson from that anger: take your own anger, your own rage, and write. It’s surely no accident that Gaiman’s harrowing 2014 report from a Syrian refugee camp precedes his exploration of Pratchett’s righteous fury to close out the book.
At 500+ pages, The View From the Cheap Seats reads remarkably quickly. Credit Gaiman’s clear and concise voice, honed by his beginning years as a journalist, for that. Whether he’s talking about They Might Be Giants, David Bowie, Jack Kirby, fairy tales, the importance of art, or political horrors, Gaiman has a unique ability to put you in the cheap seats alongside him, making this a welcome addition to all of those other creations for which he’s known.