The Sunday Salon: The Gaiman Conundrum

The Gaiman Conundrum: As an author improves in the course of their career, how does one evaluate their earlier work in relation to their later work?

I’ve named this the Gaiman Conundrum because of my experience with Neil Gaiman. As a wee lass of thirteen, I picked up American Gods and was utterly blown away. Soon after, I picked up Good Omens, a novel that never fails me to make me laugh out loud. (And it’s the same joke every time! I’m easy to please.) And Anansi Boys was even better. But when I picked up Neverwhere, I felt a little empty. It was good, but it didn’t measure up to his later work to such a degree that I felt a little disappointed in it. (I suppose the gushing praise from Tori Amos on the cover didn’t help things.) So, how, as a book blogger and reader, ought I deal with this situation?

It’s certainly not the book’s fault for being written first—every author has a first book. And to be honest, the Gaiman Conundrum doesn’t rear its head all that often. Usually, I find an author develops quite steadily through their oeuvre—while there’s a great difference between their first book and their last book (I’m thinking of Austen here), there’s usually a gentle increase between books. But when I do run across an author who has left their first book in the dust, I’m left with a question.

Would I judge the book differently if I hadn’t read their later work before it? Well, I’ll never know—I’m not going to doom myself to only reading authors by starting at the beginning of their oeuvres. But I do feel obligated to let people know that, say, Neverwhere, in my opinion, doesn’t stand a fighting chance against American Gods, even if the technique is still solid. Perhaps this ought to lead to, when dealing with an author whose entire canon I’ve read, recommended reading orders—but luckily, this problem doesn’t rear up so often that I have to deal with it beyond a simple warning.

I’ve been making my way through The Once and Future King this week; I’m just not getting into it. Perhaps I can only take so many patronizing mid-century British narrators at a time, and Lewis wore me out? (I’m still stuck on the vegetarians, people.) I’ve also been watching films—I went go see The King’s Speech yesterday, which was fantastic. I head back to school this week, bringing my winter holidays to a close. Classes, internship, rehearsal—such is life, and I hope I’m ready for it!

Don’t forget to enter my giveaway of The Hobbit! It’s open until the 28th. Pat at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is giving away a copy of The Crippled God until an unspecified date. Derek Molata is giving away a personalized set of Lesley Livingston’s Wondrous Strange trilogy until January 20th. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away a Halo book and audiobook bundle until February 15th.  The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

How do you deal with the Gaiman Conundrum?

29 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Gaiman Conundrum

  1. I agree that reading order can really influence how you react to a book, if only because of the expectations a previously read work can set up. I love Neverwhere every bit as much as American Gods, but then I did read it first.

    I’m sorry to hear you’re not getting into T.H. White! I love TOaFK a lot, but I do know what you mean about the patronising middle-of-the-century tone.

  2. Also known as The John Green Conundrum. I’ve love his books in the order they were published, but not the order I read them. (Except for Paper Towns and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, those two are switched.) So I love Looking for Alaska, then An Abundance of Katherines, then Will Grayson, Will Grayson annnnnd then Paper Towns. I’ve been trying to write a post about this for a while, but I haven’t been able to articulate it very well yet.

  3. I felt the exact same thing with Brandon Sanderson. My first experience with him was Mistborn: The Final Empire, then I read The Gathering Storm, then Warbreaker, then the rest of Mistborn Trilogy, and then, finally, I read Elantris, his first published work.

    I’ll not lie when I say I was let down. It was still a fun book, but there was so much that just felt like underworked themes from his other books. If anything, they were the first preludes to the themes of his other books, but having read it backwards, I almost felt jipped.

    I don’t know how I would have responded if I’d read Elantris first, but from a historical point of view, it was interesting to see the “time capsule”, almost like reading a “behind the scenes”.

    Sadly, I’ve not /read/ any Gaiman, only seen several of his film adaptations. This is, when I have the time, going to be something I rectify, just as I finally read Asimov and Herbert. Just need to find the time.

    • Sanderson talks a lot about that on Writing Excuses—advising aspiring writers to cut their teeth on things smaller in scope before moving on to the epics you actually want to write about; while I’ve only read two of his books, I think that shows in his writing.

  4. Reading books out of publishing order can throw a wrench into the works. I have found that I deal best with this by reviewing books as honestly as I can, mentioning the Conundrum if I have one, and remembering that someone may love a book I am not thrilled about.

    I actually gave up on Gaiman for a while because I read something (I don’t remember what) that didn’t live up to my expectations. Am I glad I got over that one!

  5. I love the Sandman series, and Good Omens is one of my favorite comic novels of all time, but I always found Neil Gaiman’s other novels (and the ones of Pratchett’s I have read so far) slightly disappointing. A little light, I guess. And I have Neverwhere on my shelf even as we speak, so now I will approach it with the proper trepidation (and perhaps be impressed when it exceeds my expectations!).

  6. That’s my issue with Susan Cooper, a tiny bit. The first book in The Dark Is Rising Saga is Over Sea, Under Stone, which is very twee and cutesy, while the rest of the books in the series are awesome and Arthurian (except for Greenwitch, which isn’t bad but is blah in comparison). When I gave The Dark Is Rising to my friend, she loved it, but then made the mistake of going to the first book right afterwards and has had a hard time diving into it again.

    Oh, and Pratchett’s books, I think, depend on the period of his working life that you hit him at. I didn’t like one of his older books the first time I tried to read him, but when I read one of his latest novels, I was hooked. I even managed to go back and read the first Discworld book, The Color of Magic. It was enjoyable and brisk, but even then, I see that his characterization, his plotting, everything, is so much profound, more blackly funny than it was at the beginning of his career.

  7. I’d stick with The Once and Future King if you can – it gets darker and bleaker, and I think White does a fantastic job of explaining Lancelot, and his and Guinevere’s betrayal. I can’t read The Sword in the Stone disinterestedly now, since I first read it as a child, and loved it; also I read a slightly different version as a child (without the transformations into an ant and a goose, which White later put into The Book of Merlyn). But it really got me interested in Arthurian legend. I suspect if I’d read the other two books when I was a kid I wouldn’t have regarded Arthurian legend in the same way, though.

      • Yup:
        part 1 – The Sword in the Stone (often published on its own as a children’s book);
        part 2 – The Queen of Air and Darkness;
        part 3 – The Ill-Made Knight;
        part 4 – The Candle in the Wind.

        ‘The Book of Merlyn’ was published after his death, and is set on the eve of Arthur’s final battle.

  8. I like to read books in the order the authors wrote them, if possible, to avoid this exact problem. When I read a book by a new author and then decide to read everything else they’ve written, I set my expectations at zero (or try to) and start from the beginning. The funny thing with Neil Gaiman is I hated Neverwhere when I first read it (and it was the first book I’d read by him), and then loved American Gods insanely passionately; but in the long run, I like Neverwhere a lot better and reread it much more frequently. All its Londoniness makes it special for me. Stardust is the one I can’t stand.

  9. Interesting question. I’ve run into this problem in the past, but I’m not sure I engage with it in quite the same way. I think I tend to think of stand-alone books as individuals, not as part of an oeuvre. (Sorry for the wonky sentence). NEVERWHERE isn’t as good as AMERICAN GODS, but it doesn’t bother me because they’re only related in that they have the same author. But then, I also read NEVERWHERE first, so I didn’t have such lofty expectations.

    It’s a bit different with series books. I do try to read those in order, and I’ve often found that the first books aren’t nearly as good as what come after. I’m often bitterly disappointed in series openers, especially if I came to the series through someone’s recommendation. I almost always read at least one more book, though, in case things get better. They quite often do, sometimes in a big way.

    But again, that’s not quite the same thing because I read the earlier book first. Hmmm….

  10. Only when I read The Graveyard Book did I feel like Gaiman had matched or possibly overtaken the quality of Neverwhere. Both have skillful plots, well-crafted characters, and spectacular prose.

    I had a hard time with American Gods, which, even though it is an amazing book, I feel it is actually Gaiman’s weakest novel. The interludes showing how other gods migrated to North America were usually interesting, but I found myself bored with them as the book went on. By the time the last interludes appeared, I was skimming or skipping them entirely. In all fairness, I need to point out that I loved Anansi Boys and enjoyed it a great deal.

    I agree that Brandon Sanderson shows signs of changing/developing so much as a writer that his earlier works seem less impressive. This doesn’t take away from Elantris being a good book, it just means that Warbreaker is a finer piece of prose.

  11. a corrollary to the Gaiman conundrum is the ability to review books in a vacuum, and how far should reviewers go in reviewing in a vacuum? should we be comparing Anansi Boys to Neverwhere, or allow a perfectly fine average novel to suffer if it was read right after something magnificent?

    if we all started at the beginning of every authors discography, we’d never have time to discover anything new! So I say, don’t stress over it too much.

  12. Just as a point on Gaiman’s oeuvre, it might make a difference that Gaiman originally wrote ‘Neverwhere’ as a TV series, and only later re-wrote it as a book. I think he said near the time that neither really told the story he wanted (but don’t quote me!). He’d been writing Sandman for years before ‘Neverwhere’, but I suppose it is a different genre.

  13. The thing about Gaiman is that I don’t really expect his novels to surpass his earlier work in comics – I adore Sandman and really like Mr. Punch. I like Good Omens better than most of his later novels. I liked Anansi Boys considerably better than American Gods or Neverwhere, though (I couldn’t finish either of those). American Gods does have the reputation of being his most ambitious novel, but I just couldn’t get into it.

    • See, and I’ve not read his comics. I come to a lot of cult figures backwards (i.e., I came to Tarantino via his history revenge films instead of Reservoir Dogs.) I don’t know if I count Good Omens as wholly his, since it’s a collaboration. I do need to revisit American Gods; luckily, there’s a new full-cast audio out. I remember adoring it as a preteen.

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