Book Review by Sapphire Ng
The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
by Neil Gaiman
William Morrow Paperbacks
Paperback, 544 Pages
Predominantly entertaining and profoundly inspiring. Most priceless of all, Gaiman wows with his unorthodox perspectives rendered in lyrical and masterful writing one would come to expect from an accomplished author. This book is a hodgepodge of writings, speeches, book introductions and more as penned by Gaiman within the span of his extensive professional career, with subject matters centered around literature, fiction, literary genres, and the creative arts.
Literature lovers familiar with Gaiman and his work might most enjoy this book. Aspiring writers and readers who love or enjoy writing, and reading, would also appreciate Gaiman’s uniquely invaluable perspectives on the craft of writing, other details related to his writing career, and the occasional philosophical rumination and probe into this medium only the way a skilled practitioner could. Certain Gaiman fans might possibly even be familiar with a sizable amount of his work included in this collection, but this book surely potentially remains a tantalizing item on a wish list.
Whilst a writerly audience in their element in the fiction universe would find themselves most at ease reading this book, those personally unacquainted with Gaiman’s works however might find writings referencing his prior works less compelling due to the general lack of context provided for the additional commentary. Nevertheless, Gaiman’s writings will indiscriminately transport fiction and nonfiction lovers and readers alike into the magnificent professional world of fiction and fiction writers. It was astonishing for me, particularly with my scant knowledge of the fiction markets of any country, to learn for example, that dedicated professional settings exist where academics could congregate and “talk wisely and intelligently about Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.”
This book could be a timely breath of fresh air for busy professionals in diverse fields seeking a quality read to wind down from everyday work, or simply to take pleasure in devouring the beautifully composed writing. Diehard nonfiction readers could even challenge themselves to step out of their comfort zones by assigning themselves the possibly daunting task of perusing this book. I personally swear by nonfiction books and have not read a single fiction title or book about fiction for at least five years. This book was however a welcome challenge that I envision would influence my reading choices in time to come; I certainly made a mental note to myself to peruse at least one fiction book this summer.
I treasure most the astute, intriguing and even unusual comments Gaiman made in his writings. Whilst Gaiman freely admitted that it was of his personal subjective opinion that “books have genders,” it does not take away from the profoundness of that perspective. Another fascinating though rather peculiar notion was that Gaiman apparently attributes a sentient quality to works of his own conception—regarding his novel American Gods, Gaiman curiously said, “Not, I should say, that I had much say in what American Gods was going to be. It had its own opinions.”
The reader might even perceive Gaiman’s offerings of thought-provoking and unconventional perspectives to be one of his greatest strengths. It was astounding for me to read such assessments by Gaiman including that “the best thing about comics may well be that it is a gutter medium,” or that “the reasons why Dracula lives on, why it succeeds as art, why it lends itself to annotation and to elaboration” could be “because of its weaknesses as a novel.” Other times Gaiman would make bold proclamations and then follow up with satisfactory explication, such as for the following statement, “The power of comics is simply this: that it is a democracy; the most level of playing fields.”
The reader could be assured that this book contains well-reasoned writerly discoveries and reflections, along with informed opinions about various facets of literature. It might be novel but unsurprising to some that Gaiman perceives his readers as “collaborators” to his writings, and others might be pleased that he endorses “fury” and “anger” as a reasonable psychological foundation to and emotional driver of a writer’s work. A profound statement mentioned several times in the book that I absolutely loved was “You never learn how to write a novel,” “You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”
While many Gaiman speeches given at literary award ceremonies, literary industry conventions, symposiums, seminars and other events do not originally address the majority of potential readers of this book, the content of the transcriptions remain highly meaningful, inspirational and encouraging to the reader. A persistent idea repeated in the book was to “make good art” no matter one’s life circumstances. For fellow artists or even readers in STEM fields, certain sentiments will still resonate—“Trust your obsessions,” “go where your obsessions take you,” and “there are other people around who can do the mediocre, meat-and-potatoes work that anybody can do. So let them do that.” For struggling writers, to read Gaiman’s invigorating words reconnecting one with the artist within the self might just be the panacea to woes from professional setbacks.
The reader might want to consider accompanying his or her reading of this book with active recording of splendidly crafted sentences that resonate with the self. I absolutely loved Gaiman’s use of musical references as he pondered the tastes of “a great malt whisky”—“It plays a chromatic scale of flavor in your mouth, leaving you with an odd sequence of aftertastes.” As a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music and with no affinity for food and beverages, I certainly appreciate the visual imagery as I imagine the flavors of the malt whisky in question materialize in delightful and escalating degrees.
It was also strangely comforting to hear Gaiman’s honest assessment as a distinguished practitioner in the literary industry that he would consider “the Eisner Awards, like all awards, [to be] flawed.” This book was certainly not entirely solemnly contemplative, as several instances in the book stood out as being genuinely and shrewdly hilarious; Gaiman’s comment about having been “chronologically challenged” was astoundingly endearing, and in my opinion, perfectly crafted and positioned for comedic effect.
My reading experience of this book was however not wholly pleasurable and satisfying. Certain pieces of writing felt rather dry and tedious, and prompted me to skip ahead. It would have been illuminating should the author write about other authors in ways that reference and contextualize details in terms of the specific author’s professional literary career and identity. In certain writings about authors Gaiman personally knew, the impression given was that the content would mostly interest and be appreciated by people who are actually individually acquainted with the author in question.
The piece “Reflections: On Diana Wynne Jones” for example was clearly a glorious tribute by Gaiman to one of his favorite authors. The nature of the content however was such that the reader who might not have any personal connection with Jones could have potentially found it dull. Details related to literary lessons Gaiman might have learned from specific accomplished authors are undoubtedly fascinating, mundane details and unremarkable narrative embellishments however on for example, daily happenings in a certain author’s relationships divorced from the craft of writing seemed at worst irrelevant for the general reader.
Fortunately with Gaiman’s informed remark about self-censorship in this book—that “kids censor their own reading, and dullness is the ultimate deterrent”—, he would have utterly understood if any of his readers, including me, for one reason or another might find certain writings of his dull. On the other hand, it might have been a blessing that I was to write a review for this book. Without this commitment, I would have quickly and effortlessly deserted this book for another the instance I found some earlier portions of this book unappealing, and therefore would also have missed the precious gems in subsequent pages of the book.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned from reading this book was that I might have conscientiously engaged in the activity of writing almost throughout my entire life as part of my formal education or otherwise, Gaiman’s appraisals however on the craft of writing and the extensive domain of writing remarkably made me feel as if I’ve never actually really known anything about writing.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.