By Jasmine Huang
The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
Neil Gaiman. Morrow, $26.99 (544P)
Although my preference goes to works by writers such as Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallance, Colm Tóibín, and Ian McEwan, and everything written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Nabokov, I was still very curious about writers like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Stephen King, and Lee Child. So when Gaiman’s first nonfiction collection came out in 2016, I went to check it out in the bookstore. I read the first 20 pages of the book in front of the bookshelves and thought he sounded like an interesting, distant uncle who happened to be a famous fantasy British writer living in the States. While Gaiman’s most famous and influential novel, American Gods, and his fantasy paperback books are still on the selves in local bookstores, I purchased Gaiman’s nonfiction book to be my first Gaiman book to read.
I first heard about Mr. Neil Gaiman when I was doing a little internet search on writers’ advice for young writers and Gaiman had a good YouTube video clip where he offered advice that was interesting to me. Here’s one of the things he said in that video clip:
“If you like books and you like Fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien. Don’t read big Tolkien-esque fantasies. Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkien-esque fantasies he read books on Finnish Theology. You go and you read outside your comfort zone. Go and learn stuff.”
What I really like about Gaiman’s the view is that he talks about favorite writers and writers who had tremendously influenced him a lot. He discussed writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. LeGuin, and talked about comics, graphic novels, science fiction and fantasy, in particular, a little history of science fiction and fantasy which I thought was incredibly interesting.
Here are some of the passages that I like:
Pxvi The authors from whom I learned my craft, over the years, were often evangelists. Peter S. Beagle wrote an essay called “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” which I read as a small boy and which gave me Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. A few years later H. P. Lovecraft, in a long essay, and after him Stephen King, in a short book, both told me things about authors and stories that had shaped horror, and without whom my life would be incomplete. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote essays, and I would track down the books she talked about to illustrate her ideas. Harlan Ellison was a generous writer, and in his essays and collections he pointed me at so many authors. The idea that writers could enjoy books, sometimes even be influenced by them, and point other people at the works that they had loved, seemed to me to make absolute sense. Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.
P41 We ask ourselves the big questions about fiction because they are the only ones that matter: What’s it for? What’s fiction for? What’s the imagination for? Why do we do this? Does it matter? Why does it matter?
Sometimes the answers can be practical. A few years ago, in 2007, I went to China for the first-ever, I believe, state-sponsored science fiction convention, and at some point I remember talking to a party official who was there and I said, “Up until now I have read in Locus that your lot disapprove of science fiction and you disapprove of science fiction conventions and these things have not been considerably encouraged. What’s changed? Why did you permit this thing? Why are we here?” And he said, “Oh, you know for years we’ve been making wonderful things. We make your iPads. We make phones. We make them better than anybody else, but we don’t come up with any of these ideas. You bring us things and then we make them. So we went on a tour of America talking to people at Microsoft, at Google, at Apple, and we asked them a lot of questions about themselves, just the people working there. And we discovered that they all read science fiction when they were teenagers. So we think maybe it’s a good thing.”
P35 C. S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. […] I think, perhaps, the genius of Lewis was that he made a world that was more real to me than the one I lived in; and if authors got to write the tales of Narnia, then I wanted to be an author.
P181 On Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.
I knew Ray Bradbury for the last thirty years of his life, and I was so lucky. He was funny and gentle and always (even at the end, when he was so old he was blind and wheelchair-bound, even then) enthusiastic. He cared, completely and utterly, about things. He cared about toys and childhood and films. He cared about books. He cared about stories.
This is a book about caring for things. It’s a love letter to books, but I think, just as much, it’s a love letter to people, and a love letter to the world of Waukegan, Illinois, in the 1920s, and the world in which Ray Bradbury had grown up and which he immotalized as Green Town in his book of childhood, Dandelion Wine.