Over the course of eight novels, four short story collections, and a series of graphic novels, Neil Gaiman’s greatest work of invention has been himself. The author has 2.42 million Twitter followers, with whom he shares everything from exhortations about human rights to bored airport musings. His messy-haired, leather-jacketed figure appears at Amanda Palmer concerts, on Guardian comment pages, and even at the 2010 Oscars. He is ubiquitous enough to transcend the genre section of bookstores and accessible enough to retweet fans’ Kickstarter pages. Inviting his fans into his life like this takes the mystique out of writing and creates a sense of community, similar to the fandom of John Green. But fans want more: we want to be confided in — we want to make it real.
Gaiman has made himself familiar and friendly without forging any real intimacy. One advantage of writing in the genres that Gaiman does is that no one ever expects the work to be autobiographical. The 50-something Englishman has never jumped a magical wall in pursuit of a fallen star or come home to find parents with buttons for eyes. Throughout his fiction, only small biographical details have snuck in: the tiny lakeside town that Shadow moves to in American Gods is reminiscent of Gaiman’s Wisconsin home, and the quiet boy who lives vicariously through the books he reads in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman as a child — he’s said so himself. Gaiman controls the narrative, not just of his characters, but of himself, limiting revelations about the latter to the mundanities of daily life and charming childhood anecdotes about reading. But he has been sprinkling breadcrumbs for years in the form of speeches, introductions for anthologies, and newspaper editorials, all of which have been compiled in the 544-page The View from the Cheap Seats.
The book is Gaiman’s first collection of nonfiction, containing everything he’s written from 1990 to the present day, from his now-famous 2012 “Make Good Art” commencement speech to text on the nature of cities from SimCity 2000. Some of the entries might’ve been better left to time, like an odd 1990 piece for Time Out about wandering London after dark that never amounts to much; we might not need two, back-to-back essays on Harlan Ellison. Yet taken as a whole, The View from the Cheap Seats is more than just an assemblage of a man’s clips; it’s Gaiman’s welcome entry into another popular genre: the writing memoir.
Stephen King’s On Writing pulls in people who would never pick up a horror novel; Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a cross between a writing memoir and a self-help book with last year’s Big Magic. It’s not a coincidence that these titles are from well-known and prolific authors, whose writing memoirs offer a rare form of intimacy. King, aside from being a master of the macabre, is an astute grammarian, as revealed by a hilarious rant against passive voice in a memoir that also explores his childhood and addiction. Gilbert may have made her name on a deeply personal memoir, but it had the consequence of making her persona larger than life; Big Magic allows her to peel back the Oprah Winfrey-approved brand to expose the diligent and occasionally frustrated writer behind it all. These books are a way for the bestselling author to remind the reader they were once like them. And even if Gaiman didn’t set out to compile a writing memoir, that’s what Seats is.
For Gaiman, the writing memoir is less about how to write and more about why we need writing. The sections are divided thematically, from music to movies to personal musings. The first is titled, “Some Things I Believe” and includes several pieces in defense of threatened literary entities: libraries, children’s literature, bookshops, and genre fiction. Most of these defenses boil down to one thing. “Somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person,” he writes in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech in this section. Even the sections devoted to things and people he loves — G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Who, comics, Tori Amos — transcend pure fandom; they are sharp analyses both of what makes the work so good and why Gaiman needed them in his life when he did. In one of the collection’s most striking pieces, Gaiman interviews Lou Reed right before a 1992 concert, asking questions about his creative process, like “So does the subject of the lyric change for you in retrospect?”
Words are inherently political to Gaiman, and writing and reading are a political act; the book features several defenses of reading as a way to teach empathy and build a better society. As this belief builds throughout the book, it’s not surprising when we come to Gaiman’s first-person account of a Syrian refugee camp in the final section. Why wouldn’t a man who has been writing for 30-some years because he believes words can facilitate change not write about one of the most pressing international humanitarian crises of our time?
This is a writing memoir about why ideas matter, and sharing this with his readers is the ultimate intimacy — building a connection that is more than a shared fantasy of a boy in a graveyard or underground London. By the end, the biographical details scattered throughout the book don’t say nearly as much about the author as do his influences, motivations, and beliefs. After all, fans fall in love with authors for the worlds they create, and by inviting readers into his own fandoms, Gaiman reminds readers he is just like them. In one sense, The View from the Cheap Seats is Gaiman’s most personal work to date.
Out this week: Modern Lovers by Emma Straub; Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips; The Gallery of Lost Species by Nina Berkhout; Robert Parris Moses by Laura Visser-Maessen; Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman; and The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2016 Book Preview.