Neil Gaiman and the Lie of Purity

Gaiman occupies an unusual place, to me. He’s a middle-aged white British celebrity, which these days puts him in a demographic practically guaranteed to be hostile, but by all accounts he’s a good guy. Like, properly a good guy, of the understands-his-privilege and now supports the liberation of all minorities – and I say “now” only because it naturally took a long while for him to even be exposed to a lot of these issues. I’ve never heard of him choosing to dismiss anyone.

What makes this unusual especially is I am a writer, aspiring screenwriter, currently working on several TV pitches, and it’s become palpably obvious to me that ‘Neil Himself’ has turned out to be the single biggest influence on the sorts of stories I like to tell. Sometimes even transitively, as certain other influences were themselves clearly influenced by him. That makes him, for me, the most dangerous sort of thing: a hero.

“Don’t have heroes” is a huge important philosophical axiom for me, born out of long sad experience that it isn’t safe to have them. Once upon a time, I liked Harry Potter; I liked Father Ted and The IT Crowd. I thought the latter was particularly interesting as a learnable style of humor. We know how those turned out. But those are extreme author behaviors and minor influences. Back in the day, I was a huge fan of Firefly and it still holds a place in my heart (and thereby writing); I used to consider Joss Whedon the pinnacle influence for screenwriting, and sought to be like him… before we found out that the “him” I would have wanted to be like was mostly PR vapor and he was the usual kind of abusive douche that all men with a grain of power in Hollywood seem to be. But I can’t shake it with Gaiman, because he keeps living up to it, the bastard.

He’s quite active on social media, notably Twitter. Unexpectedly active. One of the very few celebrities who, if you are discussing him or his work (or, presumably, any other topic of interest), does not simply ignore the ocean of chatter but suddenly looms out of it like a shark to lay teeth into someone who just said something questionable and drag them off to the depths, never to be seen again. He did that to me once, a few years ago, when – in the then-absence of explicit information – I had supposed that he was likely to hold unfriendly opinions about trans people based on the fact that his wife, Amanda Palmer, had expressed such herself. Up came the shark and I have never been so happy to be dragged into the watery grave of being wrong.

He did it again yesterday, not to me, but to one of the army of white cishet dudebros who always hate any casting or characterization decisions that move a character’s portrayal away from being like them:

A twitter conversation on the subject of the new Sandman TV series, in which a random dude named spencer james says "Really looking foward to Sandman, but I still find the constant recasting of male characters to female actresses annoying. I’m not being sexist, I’m just a purist… I suppose.." and then Neil Gaiman pops up to tell him, "I bet I’m more of a Sandman purist than you and I have absolutely no problems with a genderless androgynous character without a penis being played by a fabulous actor who fortunately also doesn’t have a penis."

Neil Gaiman Owns A Twitter Bro

Chomp, splash, blood in the water, and well-deserved. Except… except… I think Neil was incorrect in one part of this, possibly to the extent of lying about it.

I bet I’m more of a Sandman purist than you…

Mm. No. No, not a chance. I call shenanigans here. A purist? Neil Gaiman? Bull. Snotting. Shit.

This is a man who’s presided over or at least green-lit a wave of adaptations of his (and occasionally the late lamented Terry Pratchett’s) work, and in every single case, there are changes. There’s the inevitable adaptational changes that come from moving to a new medium, which even the dudebros usually accept. But there’s practically always other changes, too; characters look different, or feel different, sometimes even wind up becoming something else entirely, because it makes more sense to do it that way. No story, and no telling, lives in a vacuum. He knows that.

But I think it’s even deeper. Stories are, essentially, living things. Every telling is its own being, often the child of the previous telling, and they grow and adapt. But a new adaptation does not erase a previous one, any more than having a child makes the mother cease to be. For example, I don’t at all care for the new Star Trek movies; I think they’ve gotten generic and lost the essential core of what Star Trek was supposed to be. But that didn’t make TOS and TNG stop existing. I can watch original-flavor Kirk buckle swash in his campy 60s way or watch Picard solemnly grapple with alien morality whenever I want; those stories are still there and no less available simply because they ended.

I believe, and I admit I am chumming the water around me right now just by trying to decipher how the man thinks, that Neil Gaiman also believes this. The evidence for it in his work and his support of others’ work is extensive. Every story, every telling of a story, is its own artifact, and one of the greatest uses for such an artifact is to spawn others, be they adaptations, fanfiction, or simply inspirational influences. If I’m right, then this is an attitude fundamentally incompatible with being a purist, or at least being the sort of thing the dudebros could understand as a purist.

Purism is putting walls around what a story was, because you hate it becoming something else. That’s fear, that is. And if there’s one thing about Gaiman’s work and attitude that I aspire to above all else, it is coming to grips with this art with a heart free of fear, instead full of joy for the possibilities.


  1. lochaber says

    I read Sandman quite some time ago, maybe mid/late 90s? (Can’t remember exactly when, but well after it was published, and I was late to it then…), but I’m looking forward to this, and considering rereading the series before hand. I’ve heard some elements don’t hold up so well, but hopefully that’s corrected/improved (specifically the trans character’s storyline?)

    I’m somewhat hopeful based on his collaboration and long-time friendship with Pratchett. I haven’t read all of them, but I’m slowly working my way through the Discworld series inbetwixt other books on hold at the library, and if anything, I felt the series has gotten more cutting and outspoken in it’s social commentary as it goes on. And that social commentary tends to focus on injustices, social, economical, sexist, and others.

    A bit of a tangent here, but I one of the few things I really liked about the Constantine movie starring Keanu Reeves, was casting Tilda Swinton as Gabriel. 🙂

  2. sonofrojblake says

    NOBODY gets to complain about DCLucifer carrying when we’ve already had six seasons of Tom Ellis AND Peter Stormare. Time for something new.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Casting, not carrying, dammit.

    And at the risk of chumming the water for mein host, I’m going to wade in and interpret Gaiman differently. What I read into what he said there was something like: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. It does mean holding the essence of the story close to your heart and wanting to see it expressed as well as it can be. It does NOT mean building walls around it and following the one true shoe/gourd/story-you-read-when-you-were-impressionable.”

    Which, yeah, you kinda covered in ” or at least being the sort of thing the dudebros could understand as a purist.”… so I’m just agreeing verbosely, I guess.

    And I agree re: Gaiman. Trans representation THIRTY years ago. I literally learned deadnaming was a bad thing from Sandman (although I didn’t even hear it called that for probably 15 years after I first read it). If he ever gets cancelled, I’m out, there’ll surely be nobody left.

  4. says

    @3 sonofrojblake

    If he ever gets cancelled, I’m out, there’ll surely be nobody left.

    This will not credibly happen. On the left, ‘canceling’ is for the unrepentant, the doublers-down. I have seen folks (on Twitter, of course, the cesspool) try to go after Gaiman about those stories, but it always fizzled out because he’s been consistent about doing better, and the prospective canceler tends to get informed of this.

    The flip side of ‘the old stories are never destroyed’ is that, well, they’re always out there to see what their creators thought was worth creating. Some people have trouble separating ‘available’ from ‘current’ – like, I saw a few people trying to call out Stephen King for racism because he wrote a book in which multiple characters used the n-word a lot. That’s a complicated unpacking to begin with; it would be hard to write anything if the author had to agree with the behavior and words of every single character in it – but more than that, the book in question (can’t recall which one but I remember looking it up at the time) was around 45 years old. Even if we counted this as solid golden proof that King was racist in the 70s, it’s pretty necessary to see what ELSE has he done since then? It’s been a lot. So, while I wouldn’t arrogate to myself being able to say one way or the other about whether he’s racist or not, I wouldn’t be able to buy any analysis that didn’t include any more recent examples from his copious output.

  5. Jazzlet says

    I was going to quote you, abbey, but then I realised the quoting would get out of hand, so …

    Yes so much to the original stories still being there, the idea that anyone can spoil the originals forever by writing something new has always seemed absurd to me.

    Yes too to the idea that purism isn’t setting a story in aspic, and that to be true to the essence of a story in a new medium there will have to be changes, but that there may also be changes because of the changes in the author and in society since the original was written.

    There was more, but the gist was “Good words!”.

  6. says

    @6 Jazzlet

    Thanks. Also, I’ve made aspic. Let’s not set anything in aspic. I’m not even sure the Nazi types have done enough to merit that punishment.

  7. Jazzlet says

    I’ve read how to make aspic, I have even eaten caviar in aspic … were you feeling particularly like wasting a huge amount of time for very little result?

  8. says

    @9 Jazzlet

    Curiosity, of course. I was curious for an experience. Then I had the experience. Then I understood why that experience swiftly stopped being popular.

  9. says

    I’ve known Neil for almost 25 years. The first website I created to learn HTML way back in the 90s was “The Dreaming: The Neil Gaiman Page”. I was a huge Sandman fan, wanted to have a web project to work on to learn my skills, but knew the comic series was coming to an end, so focused on the writer rather than the series.

    It quickly became *the* Gaiman page on the web, and connected me with Neil because he appreciated all my work. Before he got (for the American Gods release) he’d tell people at signings that my site was the closest thing to an official Neil Gaiman page. I’ve had dinner with him a few times (he took me out to my first ever sushi restaurant!) and the two of us have shared drinks at his hotel bar after a signing.

    He really is one of the good ones. I grew up with a bit of a punk “no idols” attitude, and fought against being a “fanboy” the entire time, but he’s never disappointed me.

    He’s the first writer of anything to introduce me to a sympathetic transgender character (Wanda in The Sandman’s A Game of You arc) and even there he’s admitted he could’ve done better. While he’s regularly praised for his creativity, it’s his compassion (and rationality — he really does get science though not being an expert in it) that’s kept me reading/following/appreciating for over two decades.

    The list of people I used to appreciate but now despise for their beliefs is sadly quite long. Remember when we didn’t know Dawkins was a piece of shit? Nothing’s 100%, but if Neil turns out out to be a secret bad guy after all these years I’ll eat my hat.

  10. says

    @11 Joe Fulgham

    “Cautiously optimistic he doesn’t suck” is probably as good as it gets while still being realistic.

    Also: Hello, I did not expect to see you here! You know me too, at least a little bit.

  11. says

    @8: from the comments under that tweet: “being swedish makes this really funny, since “hen” (same spelling) is our gender neutral pronoun.”

  12. says

    @13 Raging Bee

    I’m going to assume that belonged on the ‘Adult Human Chicken’ post, since it would be an entertainigly nonsequitur thing to say to Neil Gaiman about Lucifer.

Leave a Reply