Style Is the Stuff You Get Wrong

Neil Gaiman? Jerry Garcia? Elizabeth McCracken? Robert Burton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard two fascinating adages about artistic style:

  1. Style is the stuff you can’t help doing.
  2. Style is the stuff you get wrong.

Both statements were made by the prominent fantasist Neil Gaiman who writes short stories, novels, comic books, and screenplays. Yet, Gaiman credited both phrases to acclaimed guitarist Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead rock band. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in an interview of Neil Gaiman conducted by journalist Joe McCabe at the Boskone science fiction convention in February 2002. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

I know Jerry Garcia said it once, but I know many people have said it before him, which is “Style is the stuff you can’t help doing.” Style in some ways is the stuff that you do wrong. Because perfect technique would be completely without style. Stuff that lets everybody know that it’s you playing is the falling away from perfect technique. So after you’ve written a few million words, the thing that lets anybody picking up a page read it and say, “Neil wrote that,” is style, it’s the stuff you can’t help doing.

Gaiman credited Garcia with the first adage: “Style is the stuff you can’t help doing.” However, the punctuation of the passage suggests that Gaiman himself crafted the second adage: “Style in some ways is the stuff that you do wrong. ” By 2008 Gaiman had refined the second adage to: “Style is the stuff you get wrong.” Confusingly, Gaiman attributed these words to Garcia.

Uncertainty remains because over the years Gaiman has credited both sayings to Garcia, and neither has yet been found in the interviews and writings of Garcia.

QI hopes that this article will encourage fans of Jerry Garcia, Neil Gaiman, and others to further explore this topic.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Style Is the Stuff You Get Wrong


  1. 2004, Hanging Out With the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators by Joe McCabe, Chapter: Neil Gaiman: Part One, (Interview of Neil Gaiman conducted by Joe McCabe at Boskone 39, the Convention of the New England Science Fiction Association in February 2002; Gaiman was the Convention’s Guest of Honor), Start Page 5, Quote Page 14, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, Washington. (Google Books Preview)

Google Can Bring You Back 100,000 Answers. A Librarian Can Bring You Back the Right One

Neil Gaiman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In today’s world of search engines and myriad webpages some have questioned the future of libraries and librarians. The award-winning fantasy author Neil Gaiman coined an insightful saying on this topic. In essence, a librarian can help guide you to find the right answer from the hundreds of thousands proffered by search engines. Are you familiar with this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 2010 Neil Gaiman was appointed Honorary Chair of National Library Week in the U.S. On April 16 of that year Gaiman spoke about the changing role of the library in the 21st century during an interview conducted in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a segment of his commentary was uploaded to YouTube. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

We used to live in a world in which there wasn’t enough information. Information was currency. Now we’re in a world in which there’s too much information. There’s information absolutely everywhere. So instead of sending a librarian out into the desert to come back with the one rock that you need from the desert, it’s now a matter of sending a librarian into a jungle to come back with the one tree, the one leaf, in the jungle that you probably wouldn’t be able to get.

Google can bring you back, you know, a hundred thousand answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Google Can Bring You Back 100,000 Answers. A Librarian Can Bring You Back the Right One


  1. YouTube video, Title: Neil Gaiman on Libraries, Uploaded on April 19, 2010, Uploaded by: indyPL (Indianapolis Public Library), (Excerpt starts at 1 minute 20 seconds of 1 minutes 56 seconds), Video description: “Neil Gaiman, author and Honorary Chair of National Library Week, speaks about the value of libraries, librarians and librarianship before his lecture at the annual McFadden Memorial Lecture Series hosted by Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library on April 16, 2010.”) (Accessed on on April 23, 2016)(The text does not exactly correspond to the words spoken by Gaiman. Redundancies and verbal stumbles have been excised) link

Who Are the People Most Opposed to Escapism? Jailors!

J. R. R. Tolkien? Arthur C. Clarke? C. S. Lewis? China Miéville? Michael Moorcock? Neil Gaiman

Dear Quote Investigator: Today, the genres of science fiction and fantasy are ascendant in popular culture. But detractors have long complained that works in these domains are escapist, and critics have asserted that the literary values displayed are sharply circumscribed. The shrewdest riposte I have heard to these notions is:

Who are the people most opposed to escapism? Jailors!

Would you please explore the origin of this remark?

Quote Investigator: The exact concise formulation given above was written by the well-known science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, but he credited the fantasy writer C. S. Lewis who was best-known for creating the world of Narnia. Indeed, a similar remark was made by Lewis, but he credited the prominent fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien who was best-known for crafting the legendarium of the Middle-earth.

In 1938 Tolkien delivered a lecture about works of fantasy to an audience at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He extended his talk to produce an essay titled “On Fairy-Stories” which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1947. The essay was reprinted in a 1965 collection called “Tree and Leaf”. Tolkien championed the value of literature deemed escapist: 1

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all.

Tolkien’s remarks were thematically related to the quotation, and he mentioned jailers, but there was no strongly matching statement within the essay. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

C. S. Lewis discussed “escape” in an essay titled “On Science Fiction” which appeared in a 1966 collection. Lewis argued that some adherents of vehement political beliefs were hostile to exercises of the imagination because they wished to “keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict”: 2

That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

So, Lewis ascribed a closely matching version of the saying to Tolkien, but the remark was not written; instead, Lewis heard it during a conversation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Who Are the People Most Opposed to Escapism? Jailors!


  1. 1965 (Copyright 1964), Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, Start Page 3, Quote Page 60, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2002 (1966 Copyright), Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C. S. Lewis, Essay: On Science Fiction, Start Page 59, Quote Page 67, A Harvest Book: Harcourt Inc., New York. (Google Books Preview)