The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman HarperCollins 2016

Over the course of his career, Neil Gaiman has written a number of essays, introductions, and speeches. The View from the Cheap Seats pulls together over 60 of these pieces in one place for the first time. For veteran Gaiman fans, many of these revisit previous works. For newer fans, it’s a rare look into the mind of one of the greatest modern writers.

The preface sets the tone with Gaiman’s personal credo, a brief summary of the basic tenants by which he lives his life and which influence his writing: Killing or maiming to suppress ideas doesn’t work. Neither does attempting to control the ideas or thoughts of others.  

Gaiman argues that ideas in and of themselves are neither good nor bad—they simply exist, and society should be free to express those ideas no matter how vile or reprehensible. It is up to each person to counter and persuade those who endorse vile and reprehensible ideas.  

From there, Gaiman jumps into a speech on the importance of libraries that he gave in 2013 for the UK charity Reading Agency. As an author, he is biased towards libraries, and he gives the reader insight into how they shaped his path as a child.

During the summer months, his parents dropped him off at the library on their way to work and picked him up on their way home. He worked his way through the card catalogue. After he finished the children’s library, he began on the adult books. The librarians nurtured his love of reading with inter-library loans and steering him towards other books he might enjoy.  

Gaiman was asked to step in when six novelists withdrew from the 2015 PEN Literary Gala, because the Freedom of Expression Courage Award went to Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine that was attacked by Islamic militants for publishing a cartoon of Muḥammad.

Gaiman's wife, Amanda Palmer, tells him he is doing the right thing, but asks if he’s going to wear a bulletproof vest. Gaiman tries to assure her a vest will not be necessary. “But you should wear a vest anyway,” she argued. “Remember, I’m pregnant and our child will need a father more than a martyr.”  

Gaiman did not wear a vest, but the exchange is a startling reminder of the power of ideas, images, and words, which can viscerally offend, but should still be defended. He quotes the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo: “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

The View from the Cheap Seats is an odd mixture in both quality and subject matter. Some of the writings are a rare and intimate view into the writer’s childhood, school life, and early career. Gaiman shares his insecurities about interviewing authors he admired, and reveals the origins of his friendships with figures such as Tori Amos and Terry Pratchett. Included among these is a moving tribute to Douglas Adams.

Other elements of the book are as ungainly as their titles suggest, such as “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997.” Even in a headscratcher like that, Gaiman manages to shine by offering an intriguing look into the publishing industry just before the Internet changed everything.

Throughout the book are numerous personal anecdotes of people famous and otherwise with whom Gaiman has formed close relationships over the course of his career. Few are as touching as the tribute to his wife’s late surrogate father, Anthony.

He and his wife met when she commissioned Gaiman to write a handful of stories and poems for her album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? During their first date, she introduced him to Anthony, who proclaimed Gaiman a good boyfriend. Despite not yet realizing Anthony’s importance to Palmer, Gaiman was pleased.

Anthony soon becomes a trusted confidante. Six months after Gaiman and Palmer were married, Anthony is diagnosed with leukemia. In the midst of this, two other friends die unexpectedly. Anthony then went into remission, but the postscript reveals that he died in June 2015. What is not revealed is that three months later, Palmer gave birth to a son. They named him Anthony.

Gaiman has long had a reputation for being open and accessible to his fans. The View from the Cheap Seats offers a deeper look at his early life and career. One can easily imagine a serious and quiet little Neil stuffed into the corner of his local library. Those unfamiliar with Gaiman should enjoy his conversational style and dry humor. He is that rare mixture of famous and unassuming. It is clear from his writing and stories that he is exactly as he seems—a somewhat befuddled English bloke who likes to tell stories. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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