Neil Gaiman? Jerry Garcia? Elizabeth McCracken? Robert Burton? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard two fascinating adages about artistic style:
- Style is the stuff you can’t help doing.
- 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 2007 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.
- 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) ↩