Hugo reading 2017: The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

Hooray, only two left after this!  Which probably tells you a lot about how much I am enjoying this section.

I decided to bite the bullet and read the longest work in this section next – Neil Gaman’s collection of non-fiction writing, The View from the Cheap Seats.  It’s 544 pages long, and was the Puppy contribution to the ballot, but to be fair, this is almost certainly trolling, and I suspect it would have got up anyway.

There’s some good stuff in here.  I like the way the essays are grouped into different sections, starting with the basics, where he talks a lot about the things he values and his childhood and the bookshops he loves, then continues on with sections about writers, about music, about comics, about film, and about life in general.  There is a fair bit of humour in the essays, but probably the thing that stands out most for me is the palpable affection with which he speaks about authors and artists he knows – Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Tori Amos, and of course, Amanda Palmer.

But bloody hell, it’s long.

He starts with an essay called Credo, which is about the importance of ideas and of free speech, even (especially) the kind you don’t like.  It ends: ‘I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and, sometimes, they can even be true.’

It’s a good place to start the collection.  There are some impassioned defenses of libraries and of reading and of escapist fiction – he quotes CS Lewis (an author who I really had not expected him to like as much as he does) a couple of times pointing out that the only people who are against escape are jailers.  I’m going to remember that one.

There are some nice anecdotes from his childhood – including one aboutf him reading Lord of the Rings and realising that it’s the best book that could possibly be written, which is a problem, because he wants to be a writer, and now what is he to do?  I also like his article about Halloween, and how it is an entirely different and creepier thing in England than it is in the US.  The article is interspersed with tiny, creepy, modern ghost stories.

I’m also interested in his idea of stories having genders.  He feels that all of his do, at any rate.  I’m trying to work out what gender, if any, my stories have.  I’m not sure that all of them have a gender, actually…

We move on to authors, and this section starts with an enjoyable piece about how photos of writers don’t show their true faces.  Writers can only truly be seen in their stories.  But if you see a writer writing, you might see his true face, and then you might never be seen again.

He then talks about authors and their books.  I especially enjoy his love of Diana Wynne Jones’ work.  He talks about always having to read her books two or three times to work out what she did, and comments that Diana Wynne Jones told him that children never seem to need to do that with her work – they read more closely.

I also enjoy his tips on how to read Gene Wolfe, which start by telling you to trust the text, because everything you need is there, and then in the very next line tell you not to trust the text further than you can throw it.

I especially liked his introduction to Poe, and was totally charmed by his introduction to Dracula, where he talks about starting to read it as a seven year old, then turning to the end of the book where he ‘read enough of it to be certain that Dracula died and could not get out of the book to harm me’.

I read books like that, too, only I’m 41.

I’m… a little uncomfortable with some of his introductions of people like, say, Lovecraft. He acknowledges the racism appropriately, but it seems a little too easy for him to set it aside and consider the positive literary aspects of the work. So that was a little something.

But overall, the intros to authors and their books are great – affectionate, informative, and with a real knowledge and love of the work.

I enjoyed his section on fairy tales, but his section on science fiction, while perfectly workmanlike, didn’t do a lot for me.  Bizarrely, I quite liked his reviews of films I have never seen and never will seen, especially his review of Bride of Frankenstein.  The reviews are very lively and thoughtful in considering what makes a film work and what constraints it has compared to other media.  Having written books and comics, some of which were turned into films, he has a very good grasp of this, of course.  Weirdly, I also really liked his essay on Dr Who, and a lot of his essays on comics, which again, I’m never going to read.  Bizarre.

My notes on his section on fairy tales seem to have been deleted – I know I enjoyed that section, but can’t say more.

I was unexpectedly delighted by his section on music, which was, again, a lot of bands I just don’t know and probably won’t see.  It’s particularly fascinating reading what he wrote about Amanda Palmer before he met her, and then after, and I loved his piece about the first time he saw her singing as part of Dresden Dolls, on their reunion tour (the band had broken up shortly before they started dating).  And Evelyn Evelyn, in which Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley sing as conjoined twins sounds fascinating and disturbing and bizarre.

There are a number of anecdotal pieces scattered throughout.  I liked Six to Six, when he was given the assignment of spending a night out in the streets of London.  And nothing happened, continuously, and for twelve hours.

5:40 – Ponder the touching concern in My Editor’s voice when I told her I’d wander the streets, her obvious worry that terrible things were going to happen to me. I should have been so lucky…

There was also a fun piece about going to the Academy Awards as a very unimportant person, a very serious piece he wrote for The Guardian about visiting a refugee camp in Jordan.

It’s a good collection, and a worthy Hugo nominee, with quite a bit of insight and moments that delighted me.  I like Gaiman’s voice, but that was always probable.   But I skimmed quite a bit of it, and I think if I hadn’t been reading it for voting purposes, I’d have given up early on.  It’s going third on my ballot, for now, after Le Guin and Harry Potter, but before the Silverberg.

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