About three weeks ago, while attending the annual convention of the American Library Association in Chicago, I was passing through the HarperCollins exhibit when, lo and behold, who should be sitting behind one of those fake little barstool-high white tables signing books but one of my favorite science fiction-fantasy authors Neil Gaiman. Gaiman was signing copies of his most recent novel, the young adult fantasy The Graveyard Book. I didn’t bother getting in the long line that had grown in response to his presence since I already had a copy at home and wasn’t inclined to shell out more money for a second. Let’s just say autographs and celebrity-chasing never did all that much for me, something I learned through an unusual set of circumstances.
When I was in high school, my father had become very close friends with Isaac Asimov. Now you may be asking: what did a garment district salesman and an internationally famous author of science fiction, mystery stories and a slew of nonfiction titles have in common? I certainly asked. But I was quickly set straight. Apparently both had been yeshiva bochers in Brooklyn in the 1930s, who shared a deep-seated love of Borscht Belt-style joke telling.
Ironically as a high school student I was a committed science fiction reader who had swiftly worked his way through Asimov’s remarkable “robot” stories and his then equally fascinating Foundation series. While by no means the greatest of writers within the genre, he was still one of its major figures, so I was more than happy to take up my father’s invitation to join him and Asimov at Sardi’s one autumn or winter afternoon or evening—I no longer recall.
In the end, the meal was memorable for how disappointing the whole affair was. Unbeknownst to me, Asimov was famous for his lecherous sensibility, which was on full display for this less than fateful encounter. Dining with this giant of science fiction proved one of the more painful experiences of my so-called high school life. Truly the scales fell from this pair of eyes. For while I love crude irreverence as much as the next native New Yorker, there is a difference between that and boorish behavior—and Asimov was all boorishness.
I turned down the next invitation to dine with my father and Mr. Asimov and the one after that. Once the pattern of polite refusal became apparent, my father inquired as to why I was so coyly avoiding “Isaac.” My father had, after all, kept me mindful of Mel Brooks’ quip that there are two types of people in the world: the famous and the near famous. The “famous” are your typical celebrities; the “near famous” are all the rest who want to sit next to the famous. Alas, lunch (or dinner?) with Asimov had put me in that great unwashed third group. Why I was avoiding ol’ Isaac? As I put it to my father in the form of my newfound credo regarding celebrity: “Forgive me if I prefer the creation to the creator.”
Of course, this does not apply universally to the many talented actors and directors, writers and poets, painters and musicians out there. In general, I’d like to think that most celebrities are actually okay folk, irrespective of their achievements. But whether they are or aren’t doesn’t really matter if what I’ve invested myself in is their work and not their social selves.
…which is just the long of way bringing me back to Neil Gaiman’s presence at that conference. I was not particularly interested in his autograph or even in meeting him, except maybe to bring back evidence of the encounter to my teenage daughter, who still believes in the magic of these things. I’d be more than happy if he just manages to keep producing work of reasonable quality and to my taste. It’s all we ought ask of our artists.