Celebrating Art – a review of Neil Gaiman’s “The View from the Cheap Seats”

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fact that I enjoyed reading another Neil Gaiman book is honestly not a surprise. He won me over to his writing some time ago.

What did surprise me is the fact that a collection of speeches and essays, introductions and musings, could come together into such a striking and resonant collection as The View from the Cheap Seats

“I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.”

So opens Gaiman’s “Credo,” which is the first piece collected in the book–setting something of a framework for all that is to come. Gaiman is a master of words. Whether he is discussing art or novels, music or simply childhood memories, he lays words on the page with talent and great affection, spinning a magic of belief into the subjects he describes. To quote every striking phrase here would be far too much work, and the end result would only cut apart–and therefore weaken–the original material. But one of the ideas that is important–an ideas that reappears throughout much of this book–is a simple one:

“I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.”

The early sections of the book are a celebration of ideas–of libraries and fairy tales, of writing and journalism, of art and the boldness of being honest even when it isn’t easy. It is a celebration of the idea of all these things, and of the fact that often, it is these simple things that shake the present and shape the future–even if we don’t recognize it fully at the time. So much of Gaiman’s writing is simply a celebration and reflection on the wonder and power of art, and it is an inspiration to read the words of someone who has achieved so much and yet held tightly to the childhood wonder that sparked it all.

From these early reflections, the middle sections move into a discussion of art and artists that Gaiman has found value in–movies, books, music, film, comics, and creation. While the universality of the early essays makes them easily accessible, at a glance, the middle sections become much more focused, much more specific–introductions to books (some of which I have not read), interviews with musicians (many of whom I have not listened to). This could make these pieces less approachable–at least at a casual look.

But there is more to be found here than might be expected–for the writings are a journey through Gaiman’s own loves and influences. Through the flaws and accomplishments, the art and lives of these subjects, Gaiman gives us the eyes to see deeper into the creators of art and the nature of what they created.

The Thirteen Clocks by james Thurber, is probably the best book in the world. And if it’s not the best book, then it’s still very much like nothing anyone has ever seen before, and, to the best of my knowledge, no one’s ever really seen anything like it since.”

This is how Gaiman opens his discussion of Thurber’s novel, and near the end, he reaches a simple conclusion:

“It is… likely to dissolve if examined too long or too closely.”

His passion for these works is infectious. In this–and in all of Gaiman’s discussions of the pieces he loves, there is a balance. He does not shy away from the unpleasant characteristics of some of the creators, nor does he pretend that each work is flawless in its existence. Instead, Gaiman is both reader and critic. He speaks about these subjects with insight and experience. In the same moment, he is able to preserve the wonder of discovering a piece of art for the first time–to value and preserve that part of you that is not reason, but heart. The part of you that, for a brief moment, beats in time with the heart of someone separated from you by time and distance, but united in sharing the same sliver of a dream–captured in a painting, or a song, or a book.

Gaimain’s celebration of specific pieces of art and specific artists is varied and detailed (and introduced me to a number of works I had not encountered previously, but now am intent on finding for myself.) It gives insight into Gaiman’s own influences and is a journey thorough the lives of so many creators who have come before.

And then, as the book winds toward its close, he again broadens to ideas that affect us all. His (for lack of a better term) manifesto “Make Good Art,” returns to the themes of the early sections of the collection.

If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet… And now go, and make interesting mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

But the final sections of this collection do not limit themselves to art. They reach out, touching other pieces of life and finding the threads that run through pieces–driving creation, spurring empathy, adding complexity.

Gaimain’s essay on Syrian refugees is markedly different from much of what is included in this book. But, on reflection, it belongs on greater merits than simply its author.

“I imagine the world dividing into the people who want to feed their children, and the ones shooting at them. It is probably just an artificial divide but UNHCR [the refugee agency] is on the side of the people who want to feed their children, on the side of human dignity and respect, and it is rare to know that you have picked the right side. You are on the side of people.”

In addition to being the goal of aid workers around the globe, in many ways, this is also the goal of art–to understand people, the hear their stories and their hearts, to move individuals and society toward a better version of themselves. This is not always obvious. It is not always even intentional. It happens through action, this happens through conversation, and sometimes it happens through imagination. These are not separate ideas–they are linked threads. They are part of what it means to be human.

At the end of a story about himself and Amanda Palmer, Gaiman simply describes the following:

“Her cheeks are black with wet eye makeup and it’s smearing on the sheets and the pillow as she sobs and I hold her tight, and try with all my might to understand.”

Sometimes the goal–in art, in life–is simple. We just need to try and understand.

Finally, it seems fitting that Gaiman should end his collection with a discussion of Terry Pratchett. In the essay, he describes their friendship, and he describes the “fury” that he saw beneath much of his friend’s writing.

“He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness.”

In this, I see the culmination of the themes spread throughout the book–friendship, empathy, humanity, and the power that exists in channeling these things into art. It is deeply personal, and also remarkably universal.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a view of Gaiman’s thoughts across the years. It is a patchwork of the universal and the specific. Throughout the essays, we see some thoughts and turns of phrase reappear, while others change or gain new life and understanding. These discussions are solemn and funny, imperfect but always maintaining sight of something greater. They are inspirational and, taken together, they become something more meaningful than they would be apart.

To put it simply, the book is a celebration. And a reflection. And and encouragement to anyone who has ever felt they had something to say. It is grounded in the real while holding onto a child’s ability to dream of things others would call impossible.

And that ability to dream is one of the things that makes art so beautiful.

Gaiman ends the collection simply, as he comes to terms with the loss of Terry Pratchett:

“I rage at the imminent loss of my friend.

“And I think, What would Terry do with this anger?

“Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.”

Sometimes it’s as simple–and as difficult–as that.

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