How to Talk to Girls at Parties, by Neil Gaiman

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” has been nominated for a Hugo, and has been made available on-line. It’s one of the short stories in Gaiman’s collection, Fragile Things.

I should first admit that although I’m a bit of a comics geek, Gaiman’s not on my must-read list. Occasionally I will adore his work, mostly it’s merely an afternoon’s read. It’s nothing in particular against him, merely that he’s not interested in writing about things I’m interested in reading about, so our paths don’t cross.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” was a huge disappointment for me, however, even with my moderate expectations. Short stories need to make up in intensity what they lack in length. A clever and unexpected twist, or startlingly original idea will achieve this: see Snow, Glass, Apples, for Gaiman doing this well. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” had a few original ideas, but the central conceit was so incredibly transparent that I had figured it out five hundred words in.

The following contains spoilers.

Our narrator is called, rather unfortunately, Enn. (I assume this a nickname, or short for something.) He’s on his way to a party with his more confident friend, Vic. They go to an all-boys school together, although Vic has managed to actually meet and interact with girls. On their way to the party, Vic tells the nervous Enn, “They’re just girls, […] They don’t come from another planet.”

This is what we call a gun on the wall in the first chapter. Combine this with the fact that the story is nominated for a Hugo, and written by Gaiman, and I think most readers can work out for themselves where the story goes from here.

Obviously, Vic makes a good point. Girls really are just people, and treating them as completely incomprehensible aliens is going to be a barrier to communication, or, in the case of this story, allow Enn to mistake completely incomprehensible aliens for girls. But, as someone who is actually a girl, pointing out that girls are people was not an insight that rocked my world.

There are interesting implications in the fact that the girl-shaped aliens want to impregnate Enn not with larvae, but with a memetic virus, a poem that will reshape humanity. Is this meant to contrast to a fear of the sexually liberated woman? This was not truly explored.

“Talking to Girls at Parties” is like watching a magician pull out of a hat, not a rabbit, but a hatpin, while a rabbit hops across the stage.

So the story failed to deliver that sharp twist which I particularly like in short stories, but it is quite decent at completely incomprehensible aliens. If you like your aliens with truly other biology and societies, this story is worth checking out.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    A few years ago, if I mentioned I loved Douglas Adams, it seemed like at least 3 people would chirp “Then you must love Neil Gaiman, too!”

    No. I mustn’t.

    He’s got a lot going for him. He can put together some good stories. But OMG I have never seen so many words from one author evaluating his main character’s level of attraction for women. He’ll go on for pages about how the character doesn’t understand why he’s attractive to women but somehow he’s attracted lots of really great ones even though he’s not that great looking but maybe it’s something else about him or… and all this while they’re running from vampires through sewers or something.

    I mean, for the first paragraph or two it could be interesting. Who among us knows why they are/aren’t attractive to particular people? But I swear this is the central theme in his entire body of work. It’s a little weird, you know?

  2. Betty says

    I have never seen so many words from one author evaluating his main character’s level of attraction for women. He’ll go on for pages about how the character doesn’t understand why he’s attractive to women but somehow he’s attracted lots of really great ones even though he’s not that great looking but maybe it’s something else about him or… and all this while they’re running from vampires through sewers or something.

    I honestly haven’t read enough Gaiman to be able to recognize this pattern. I enjoyed his stuff on Books of Magic, where I don’t really remember it as a theme, and I can’t remember if it came up or not in Neverwhere.

    In general, though, his characters are just insecure enough not to be interesting to me.

  3. says

    But OMG I have never seen so many words from one author evaluating his main character’s level of attraction for women.

    Which is exactly why I couldn’t bring myself to finish the story when I first found it in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine (which they really should call “for men only magazine, but sometimes we’ll let you girls write for us, too”).

    I even went into it expecting some Nice Guy (TM) crappy drivel. But that was just an overload for me.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I honestly haven’t read enough Gaiman to be able to recognize this pattern. I enjoyed his stuff on Books of Magic, where I don’t really remember it as a theme, and I can’t remember if it came up or not in Neverwhere.

    I read American Gods, then Nevermore, then something else. It was heavy in AG, less so in the other two. But…

    In general, though, his characters are just insecure enough not to be interesting to me.

    …exactly.

  5. says

    I wonder if Gaiman’s treatment of women stems from the fact that he originally started out as a graphic novelist, a genre whose readers are (sadly) mostly teenage boys…

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Could be, Tina. From what I’ve read I don’t get a sense of sexism – it’s more like someone utterly baffled by women. Which would be a pretty understandable feeling for a teenage boy.

  7. says

    Exactly. Being an avid fan of graphic novels and comics in general, I find that they often fall under two categories–the one where women are clearly “objects” available for human consumption and one where they are less so. I often feel like the “less so” category is because writers find that their audience is getting older and thus maybe not as “into” all the big breasted stereotypes as they used to be and actually want a story, but still like to look. Gaimen’s Sandman is actually a pretty solid graphic novel, but he still kinda treats women as this alien being. From what I get from his other books (granted I’ve only read 2) the same theory applies. I would also be interested in seeing whiich demographic buys his novels, if it’s predominatly male or more mixed. I haven’t read this short story yet but have heard mixed things about it all round.

  8. Gategrrl says

    I just stumbled into this conversation. I have the collection of short stories this is in, but I have to say – I skipped over the story you review in this article mostly because, well, *I don’t care* about how a guy functions when meeting girls. And I do get tired of the trope of women-as-aliens.

    I do like his imagination, however, and the twists he puts into his work. Not all of his shorts are successful, and some of them I’m still scratching my head over (the boy and the troll…a paean to middle aged men).

    He and his friend Alan Moore have the same weakness writing about women (see Watchmen). But I’m so used to reading male-centric adventure novels, because female-centric adventure novels tend to center around a protagonist with an animal familiar (cat, unicorn, or other crap) and boys, on one level or another, instead of getting down to business.

    Hmmm. I wrote a long review of Watchmen and how it treats women on my LJ. Would you like me to submit it to Hathor, BetaCandy? I’m not really a deep reviewer, but there are observations in it.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, Gategrrl, just email it to me and I can post it for you. :)

    Gaiman IS pretty entertaining if you can get past the stuff with the women, which I did for about 3 books. I’ve gotten less patient with that stuff over the years. ;)

  10. Gategrrl says

    What I didn’t say was, I honestly didn’t really notice how Gaiman approaches his women in his stories. Well, at least not conciously. He doesn’t seem as bad as some authors I’ve read.

    At this point I’ve read American Gods, Fragile Things (most of it, anyhow), Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, most of Smoke and Mirrors, and I haven’t read Coraline yet (which features a young girl as its protagonist).

    I’ll have to go back over Neverwhere, which is the novel I suspect you’re thinking of with the running about in sewers and so forth. I don’t think it’s his best novel…and of course it features a male protagonist who is discovering himself through what I could only call a psychotic break! The protag does spend a lot of time thinking about how undeserving he is to have such a gorgeous girlfriend – but she’s very controlling as well, and he’s willing to be controlled. Until he emerges from his underground psychosis, that is.

    And I have to get going, so will continue this later. I think.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nevermore does do it, but IIRC American Gods does it even more strongly. Not enough to keep me from enjoying the story, but when I encountered it in Nevermore, too, I was just kinda like, “Oh, okay, so I have to read this in every book.”

  12. Gategrrl says

    Wow, I must have my reading-blinders on Full when I read Gaiman, then: I just pass over it and stomp ahead. I do remember Shadow, in American Gods, thinking about how much he misses his wife, how much they adore each other (or so he thinks), and so forth. But I honestly can’t recall him or the other characters going on interminably about women…except that Shadow’s employer is a womanizer and so is always thinking about women (among other things).

  13. jessica says

    [troll]stop takin it so serious.
    how to talk to girls at parties…
    its just a short story
    its fun to read and had a cool sci-fi plot

  14. Betty says

    stop takin it so serious.

    I take it seriously because I like and respect Gaiman as an author. But you needn’t take my review seriously; you don’t know me at all.

  15. says

    anansi boys is fantastic. i heart gaiman for writing a fantasy novel featuring a nearly all black cast whose focus is not on their blackness. plus ten for not relying on hardcore africa connections, too — it’s very much a black/new world/post-colonial mythos. i really loved that, because i think sometimes white authors doing black mythology wanna treat slavery as though it didn’t happen, and, um, it did.

    but he gets a minus 15 for his inability to handle female chars without infantilizing them (i think it’s significant that his most strongly drawn female char is coraline, who’s what? 10?) and basically treating them like they’re nutty aliens from another planet.

    also? it’s amazing how important vowels are.

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    Ooh, I’ll have to check out anansi boys, then. I gave up on him because his handling of women just got on my nerves, but to see him handling color well would be worth it. (He’s definitely a good writer in almost every way but the writing of women.)

  17. alice says

    The story, to me, was a dull line that peaked in one spot: Triolet drawing him into her spell. I wished that Vic hadn’t been so quick to pull out. I was rather amused at the accompanying sketches (proportioned and soulless) on Gaiman’s site.

    Also, on the names, I figured that Enn was short for “envy” and Vic was the “Victor”, the playa playin’. Please don’t disemvowel me for that.

  18. Anna says

    Very nice and thoughprovoking review. I do think Gaiman is a wonderful writer. That said he does have issues with the female characters. His Snow,glass, apples resembles an old Tanith Lee story “Red as blood” a bit too much. The basic premise is nearly identical.
    But that doesn’t diminish my adminration for him.

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