“Ask me with a gun to my head if I believe in them, all the gods and myths that I write about, and I’d have to say no. Not literally. Not in the daylight, nor in well-lighted places, with people about. But I believe in the things they can tell us. I believe in the stories we can tell with them. I believe in the reflections that they show us, when they are told. And, forget it or ignore it at your peril, it remains true: these stories have power.”
The View from the Cheap Seats begins with a short general introduction, but moves fairly quickly to the essays themselves. The individual pieces are not introduced, though there is a brief note at the end of each explaining where an essay was originally published, or a talk delivered. I preferred to flip to the end and read this information first so that I had some context for the piece. This was helpful since some of the essays and speeches are quite old, and others rather recent, spanning a period of about thirty years. While it is sometimes nice to get more reflection from the author in a work of collected non-fiction, getting straight to the point does allow for more pieces to be included, and this book already clocks in at 502 pages, less the credits and index. In it, Gaiman champions libraries, defends intellectual freedom, reflects on science fiction and comics as art forms, and sheds light on his stories and writing process.
I read my first Neil Gaiman novel nearly a decade ago now. Since then I’ve seen Gaiman speak in person twice, and I regularly follow his current articles thanks to social media. But reading The View from the Cheap Seats was a bit like being able to travel back in time, back to before I knew who Neil Gaiman was, or to the window where I did know, but didn’t yet have Twitter or the ability to attend a signing or lecture. It was also a bit like being able to rummage around in Gaiman’s filing cabinets, dredging up old introductions, and speeches given at a time when such things were more ephemeral, and often only available to those who were there. Of course, someone has very kindly gone through and organized and annotated those filing cabinets for you, collecting ideas, and arranging related pieces in chronological order. Themes emerge, and you can almost see how certain ideas evolved or coalesced over time.
One of the pieces collected here is “Make Good Art,” which was a commencement address Gaiman delivered at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012. The video went viral, and the following year it was published as a small gift book designed by Chip Kidd. However, I was very happy to find it in this collection, because I could never bring myself to buy the book, for as many times as I have reread that speech and seen the video. Kidd is a very well-regarded designer, but our tastes—particularly in colour palettes—are vastly different. Though it could be included here based on popularity alone, “Make Good Art” is also integral to the collection for another reason; it can be seen as the distillation of a theme that runs through many of the pieces in the book, some of which were published in the 1990s: the exhortation to focus, above all, on creating quality work.
One of the earliest glimmers of this theme comes in the form of a cautionary speech, delivered to the Diamond Comics tenth annual retail seminar in April 1993. Entitled “Good Comics and Tulips,” in it Gaiman compares the unprecedented comics boom of that period to the seventeenth century Dutch tulip fad that gutted the economy of Holland when it inevitably collapsed. In the address, Gaiman pleads with the salesmen to remember that comics aren’t investment items, but stories, and that “comics are for reading and appreciating, like tulips are for planting and blossoming and appreciating.” Many people were basking in the financial glow, or fueling the idea of comics as investment items, but Gaiman was already worried about losing sight of the more integral—and sustainable—demand for good, old-fashioned story-telling.
Of course, that isn’t to say that Gaiman doesn’t ruminate on the business side of things. In addition to discussing craft and genre, he also includes a piece that was originally published as the introduction to Cory Doctorow’s book Information Doesn’t Want to be Free. The introduction talks about the changing financial environment for artists in the digital era. But Gaiman approaches this as he does many other things, through fiction, in this case by comparing the ability to effortlessly duplicate digital content to a 1958 short story by Ralph Williams entitled “Business as Usual, During Alterations,” about a department story that acquired a matter duplicator that enabled them to create unlimited copies of their merchandise while keeping the original. Like the author, and the magazine that published the story, Gaiman is optimistic that artists can continue to evolve and adapt to the new environment; people always want good stories, even as how they get them changes.
Many of the pieces included here are introductions to books Gaiman loved as a child, a good number of which have been largely forgotten since then. But Gaiman can make you care about things you’d never heard of yesterday, and find interesting angles on artists, and writers, and musicians outside of your normal wheelhouse. For all that he left journalism behind to make things up, he is a wonderfully insightful interviewer and columnist who seems to know intuitively where our empathy lives. The View from the Cheap Seats is a book that makes you want to read things, and listen to things, but most of all to make things.
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