Why Neil Gaiman Thinks Fiction Is Dangerous, and Why I Think It’s Dangerous

On Saturday, June 1, the final day of BookExpo America, rock-star fantasy and children’s author Neil Gaiman spoke to an adoring crowd of 500 on the topic “Why Fiction Is Dangerous.” At least, that was how the event was billed, but it seems to have been a throwaway title Gaiman gave BEA and then considered briefly beforehand. Instead, he focused mostly on discussing the two books he has coming out this year: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult title starring a child narrator, and Fortunately, the Milk, a children’s title starring an adult narrator. Yes, Gaiman does twist things around.

His explanation of how these books came about shows why he’s so popular: he’s a master storyteller with an uncanny ability to find anecdotes that are sometimes funny but always affecting and revealing. For instance, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which aims to show “what it was to see the world as it was when I was seven,” was inspired partly by a farm on his childhood lane that was listed in the Domesday Book and partly by his learning that a South African lodging with his family had stolen their car and committed suicide at the end of that same lane.

I really did want to learn why fiction is dangerous, though, and while I am sure fans got their time’s worth from the event, I had to content myself with a few drops of wisdom. Fiction is dangerous, Gaiman explained, because “it lets you into others’ heads, it gives you empathy, and it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.” That imaginative leap into other minds and other worlds is surely the reason many of us read fiction.

But as I considered the wonderful works presented at Day of Dialog’s fiction panel, “Getting (Re)Acquainted with the Best Voices in Fiction Today,” it occurred to me that fiction is dangerous not because it shows us that the world could be different but instead tears down our illusions about the world as it is—which can be painful and pretty scary, since we use those illusions for protection. The small-town folks in Alan Gurganus’s Local Souls who need heroes and suffer fates we think are typically reserved for kings, how Amy Tan played out the inspiration behind The Valley of Amazement—a photograph suggesting to her that her grandmother might have been a courtesan—all are evidence that fiction is dangerous because it’s so good at making the real world up close, personal, and very, very unsettling.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. pabkins says:

    Yes it lets you into another person’s head exactly! Fiction is the best kind of danger – I always want to live on that kind of edge! haha Sorry I missed his panel!

  2. Martha Cornog says:

    At BEA, Neil did tell a compelling story about why fiction is dangerous. Fiction, he said, “shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one that you live in. Which is an incredibly dangerous thing for the world.” He told about being invited to a science fiction convention in China in 2007, and he asked a government official there why China was now allowing such a convention after decades of suspicion about such topics and events. The official answered that while China has a worldwide reputation for being excellent at constructing things that others bring to them, China itself has not been inventive or innovative. Then through outreach in America to Google, Microsoft, and Apple, the Chinese government discovered that many individuals in those companies grew up reading science fiction. Thus these Americans picked up when young the idea that the world could be different than the world they knew. China is now doing the math.

    • Donna DiMichele says:

      In “The Man Who Loved China” by Simon Winchester, you can learn about how China stopped being a country of invention to one of adoption