Letterbox #1: On Neil Gaiman and highbrow journalism

Yes, I’m still on hiatus but the following piece was written a few months ago.  Sometimes, I like my comments to others better than posts I write on my own blog.  Those pieces will be edited silently to correct typos and factual errors.  Also, I’ll revise slightly to improve flow and to excise inside-baseball references that might not be familiar or necessary to readers who aren’t familiar with the original piece on which I commented.

Exhibit A is my longish response to Wax Banks’s brief post about a New Yorker profile of Neil Gaiman by Dana Goodyear.  My comment is much longer than Wax’s piece, and it’s not really about Gaiman but instead one of my bugbears: the condescension that “highbrow” journalism/criticism gives to “genre” writers.  Enjoy.

Dear Wax,

Maybe it’s just me but I was much more annoyed by Goodyear than by Gaiman. The essay is condescending in that special way that The New Yorker can be about writers who play with genre—i.e., most of the article is about Gaiman’s persona and the (presumed) identity makeup of his audience, and not much attention to his aesthetics, influences, and themes. I got very little sense of what makes his work tick, or that Goodyear cared enough to be engaged with Gaiman’s writing.

Even the stuff Goodyear gleans about Gaiman’s personality come across as snide: the “big reveal” about Gaiman’s Scientologist background turns out to be little more than a chance to wag a finger about how weird the religion is. Now, I’m no fan of Scientology, but Goodyear introduces this element as a “pivotal fact,” and then goes nowhere with it. How does Scientology affect Gaiman’s output?  (It doesn’t or, at least, Goodyear doesn’t show it.)  Are there traces of dianetics in Gaiman’s comics, novels, or films?  (No.)  Then what’s this tangent doing in the profile? (Well, Gaiman wears black and is all-twee and shit, so Scientology just jibes with his weirdness, right? RIGHT?) Goodyear gives us more warmed-over shit about teenage girls wearing black makeup and tattoos—okay, folks, I like Gaiman, too, and I don’t fit this model, so fuck you—than honest revelations about Gaiman’s successes and limitations as an artist and thinker.

In fact, I’m not sure Goodyear is interested in how Gaiman thinks at all, as opposed to how he behaves. If the piece were engaged, there’d be quotes and reactions from other fantasy writers, comics artists with whom Gaiman has worked, sci-fi writers and thinkers, and his collaborators. The fact that Gaiman’s de-facto designer/artist/collaborator Dave McKean rates not a single quote—despite co-directing a movie with the man, designing the covers for every issue of Sandman, and drawing the illustrations for Gaiman’s children’s book—tells you everything you need to know about Goodyear’s level of commitment to the project.

Look, I understand reservations about Gaiman.  I get it.  I’m not a fanboy, despite the length of this comment.  Sandman’s art, especially in the early years, doesn’t hold up.  He’s not much of a short-story writer.  The goth pretensions can be cloying.  So are the idealized representations of teenage girls.  But, but, but… there are fascinating ideas in him about how children behave and mature; about the persistence of folklore in modern times; about the uses of maligned genres (sci-fi, fantasy) and mediums (comics) to create highbrow art; about how the lowbrow mixes with and affects the high; about the nature of fear.

But there’s no engagement with Gaiman’s ideas beyond quoting what Gaiman says.  You mention that Gaiman comes across as a “self-regarding asshole” in the profile.  I don’t see it as self-regarding so much as self-guarding; he doesn’t seem to give away much. Maybe that’s his personality, though, given his blog, I dunno…  More likely, he sniffed another “British weirdo wears black all the time” profile a mile away, and decided that discretion was the better part of not strangling the journalist.

I can’t quite believe I spent so much time responding here to an essay I read and dismissed a week ago, about a writer whom I like but don’t worship. But that’s the thing: Goodyear’s piece is eminently dismissable. There’s nothing there. And, like him or loathe him, there is something there in Gaiman, and he deserved a fuller treatment than he got. More importantly, and I think this is what pissed me off, I would argue that the profile is yet another failed attempt to engage critically with “genre” writers who cross over to the mainstream critical establishment, or who infuse pulp tropes with more consciously “literary” aims.  Except that Goodyear didn’t bother to make much of an attempt at all, and so those creepy fantasy writers (and their fans) get pigeonholed and patronized once more.

Enough.  But a last note: So fucking what if he comes across as “a self-regarding asshole”?  Writers have to have a tremendous sense of self-regard in the first place, just to think their work is worth being published and paid for?  Plus, dude wrote Anansi BoysAmerican GodsStardust, and Coraline.  He’s allowed a little ego.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Letterbox #1: On Neil Gaiman and highbrow journalism

  1. Gareth says:

    Neil Gaiman is a hack who is indiscriminate when it comes to his writing, apparently throwing his material together with little planning, plotting, or thought. Gaiman’s writing is boring. The shabbiness and threadbare quality of his plots can be seen in the film treatments of his work, he relies on simplistic prose and plays it safe. Gaiman’s affiliation with Scientology explains the stunted prepubescent musings that pass as revelations in his work. I can’t imagine what you mean by “deserves a fuller treatment.” Despite endless opportunities, Gaiman writes the same dreary aimless character, nothing happens, no one changes. Gaiman is one of the laziest writers I have ever read.

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