Neil Gaiman: I Don’t Get It

I suspect we all have a little list of writers who others worship but we hate. I can’t stand Faulkner, even though Gabriel García Márquez cites him as a great inspiration. I find The Great Gatsby almost unbearably whiny and tedious, even though Haruki Murakami calls it his favourite book. García Márquez and Murakami rank very highly in my personal literary pantheon, though, so I’m willing to grudgingly concede that there must be something to both Faulkner and Fitzgerald, even if that something is fingernails-on-the-blackboard to me.

But weirdly I find it easier to understand wild praise for authors I despise than those who I mildly like. I’m thinking in particular of Neil Gaiman.

I’ve read a fair amount of Gaiman over the years: was enthralled by Sandman, really liked Good Omens, liked Stardust, thought Neverwhere was OK I guess, flipped through Smoke and Mirrors without much interest, and just this week read American Gods, which had some good bits but overall I didn’t much care for. And you know, I think I’m going to stop there. You’ll notice a certain trajectory.

Thing is, just about everyone else seems to have the opposite reaction to his oeuvre. Most of the SF readers I know speak of Gaiman with hushed adulation, and praise American Gods over Neverwhere, and Neverwhere over Stardust. I just don’t understand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to claim that the emperor has no clothes; at worst I’m observing that his suit isn’t exactly Savile Row. But mostly I’m here to ask, out of genuine curiosity: what is it, exactly, that his fans get out of his books that prompts such devotion? Because I’m really not getting anything much at all.

There’s no denying that his talent is considerable. Even American Gods erupts into life every so often, usually in one of its often-brilliant Coming To America sideline sections—but then we return to the main storyline, and the fire goes out again, because both its plotting and its characters are shallow and contrived, fuelled by little more than pathos and a few flashy tricks. Much of the book’s main plot verges on being filler. (Also, I kept thinking while reading it, “You know, Douglas Adams told this same story much better in Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul.”)

He’s very good when he writes about gods, but his people are a whole lot less convincing. They tend to be either ciphers or archetypes, and the latter often veer dangerously close to caricature territory. His protagonists are mostly maddeningly passive: both Neverwhere and American Gods can be summarized as “man encounters mythical figures who proceed to lead him around by the nose for hundreds and hundreds of pages.” This appears to be a conscious choice; there’s a bit in American Gods where the protagonist is suddenly exultant that he has actually done something, for once—on page 451! But it’s no less off-putting and frustrating for being deliberate.

But I think there’s more to my failure to engage than that. The gods and entities Gaiman writes about are clearly meant to resonate on some level, and they just don’t. I recognize the archetypes he’s writing about intellectually, but, outside of Sandman and Stardust, and even there only in patches, I don’t respond emotionally. Neverwhere should have been right up my alley—I’ve written fantasies about urban spelunking myself, and I’ve lived in London on several occasions. But instead it left me cold.

I’m quite willing to accept that the flaw is mine, not his … but at the same time, I genuinely don’t understand what other people are getting out of his work that I’m not. So I ask you: why Gaiman? What about his work do you find so compelling? What am I missing?

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