The first rule of reading Amanda Palmer is to forget that she’s Amanda Palmer.
Or, this rule was to be my plan with The Art of Asking. I’ve never met Palmer — though, full disclosure: I teach at Bard College, where her husband, Neil Gaiman, also works and where apparently Palmer also occasionally stages productions. I have a vague-ish memory of the Dresden Dolls, the “Brechtian punk cabaret” band she was in during the aughts. I also had encountered some angry articles about her from the last few years that confused me more than enlightened me on what she was about. I’d run into her the most on Twitter, where it doesn’t matter if you follow her or not — I didn’t but now do — as you will no doubt see her tweets ubiquitously retweeted, exchanges with just about anyone (everyone?) who might mention her name, a sort of 24-hour nonstop presence. At a certain point, it becomes hard not to wonder about this woman who has made the word fucking her middle name.
Amanda Fucking Palmer’s debut The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help is a lot of things: part memoir, part self-help, part manifesto, part blog post, part Twitter essay, part poem, part chain letter, part cognitive-behavioral-therapy Post-it notes, part scribbles on the back of receipts on the subway, part love letter, part fuck-you. It’s a more extended take on her very popular TED talk (which had more than 3.1 million views the last I checked), and it is irreverently, lovingly, sadly, and happily, a “hot mess” — the same sort-of-affection, sort-of-SMH-ing that phrase comes with certainly applies here. Still, to hate this book feels impossible to me — only someone who has cast Amanda Palmer in the gray cement of problematic could. After all, Palmer’s greatest feat here is that she might have created that most impossible thing: a book that just may be beyond reproach.
Palmer has been divisive (to put it mildly) for years. Her controversies are countless (and mostly included in the book, so you won’t even have to pop in and out of her elaborate Wikipedia page). Most of the animosity seems to come from Palmer’s Most Successful Kickstarter Campaign in History — in 2012, to record a solo album without a label, her crowdfunding goal of a stout $100,000 turned quickly to a behemoth $1.2 million, with about 25,000 donors. This in itself might spark some envy, but the haters had their field day when, after the payout, she asked fans to perform with her on her tour for “beer, merchandise and hugs.” Zero proper compensation from a new millionaire did not rub the Internet the right way. A year later, she put out "A Poem for Dzhokhar" about the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and it not only got dubbed “the worst poem of all time” (Gawker, naturally), but it elicited substantial rage for its somewhat-sympathetic portrayal of the young man. Of course, years earlier, Palmer's onstage rape-fantasy double-team shenanigans with Margaret Cho on an "I Kissed a Girl"-lip-synching Katy Perry look-alike didn’t go over too well either. And, just last month, she angered the Internet by seeming to initially side with embattled CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who was going to appear with her on a Toronto tour stop — but in the end, swayed by fans, she dropped him.
Still, Amanda Palmer has 1.05 million Twitter followers. In this era of constantly overamplified Internet outrage, a time when social media seems to be sending the signal that no one on the wrong side of things is ever going to get a second chance, Palmer gets them over and over. One wonders how. One wonders why.
This in itself is a very good reason to read this book.
How do you put Palmer aside and read this book just for its contents? Or, should you?
As a book reviewer, it’s never been harder for me to grapple with even the ghost of impartiality than with this book.
But The Art of Asking will have you know it already thought of that. It dares you to think the question matters, just as it dares you to think it will not be for everyone.
What made Palmer’s TED talk so wildly popular is the anecdotal centerpiece in her book: Palmer’s many years being “The Eight-Foot Bride,” her alter ego, which took the form of a human statue in Harvard Square. She’d cover her face in white powder, put on a secondhand wedding dress, stand on a milk crate, and hand out wilted flowers to those who’d drop money. This, along with stripping, become her bread and butter for years. This sort of DIY spirit with money-conjuring extends to her band’s “ninja-gigs” around the world, where fans would house and feed and support her all the way. Palmer places her beloved asking against its evil twin, begging, and makes a compelling case for radical empathy. Thankfully she does not wax philosophical too much but instead provides the evidence: tales of couch-surfing to crowdsurfing to crowdfunding fill the book. The most potent image of all is Palmer stripped naked in front of fans having them cover her body in markered drawings. Trust is her message, her motto, her drug.
While I suspect that main stage will hook most people, for me it was all the sideshows. One of the joys of the book is the rampant name-dropping. Fans of Kathleen Hanna (who apparently gives excellent relationship advice), Karen Mantler, Walt Ribeiro, Andrew O’Neill, and Edward Ka-spel get to see them in a buddy light that Palmer handles more warmly than most memoirists — one of the cases where her genuine informality works for her.
One of the best parts about the book, though, is reading about her relationship with Gaiman, which only feels juicier when you realize he played editor and cut an astounding 50,000 words from this now-350-plus page book. The Gaiman gossip will satisfy a hunger you never knew you had. Examples: For a long time Neil believed that people could not fall in love! Neil and Amanda’s first real date was at Café Gitane! Neil barely drinks! Neil and Amanda have an open relationship! Neil has downloaded the app to tell when women’s periods are to deal with Amanda’s PMS! Neil doesn’t dance!
The marriage with Gaiman, and her struggles with her cancer-stricken friend Anthony, are not simply subplots to serve her “asking manifesto,” but they become their own memoir, interesting in themselves. Palmer loops them into her ideology here, but magically it does not feel exploitative, peripheral, opportunistic, etc., at all. Palmer understands audience — which is more than many authors can claim — and she owns being an entertainer, first and foremost. She seems to understand literature is also an entertainment industry, more than many want to acknowledge. Story is always a performance, and it’s the performer in her that pulls off the many stories that make up this book.
There is another reason this book won me over, I have to admit.
Palmer’s theme here has a particularly personal resonance for me — though of course on a more minor scale, as I have 0.4% of her Twitter followers. In 2012, after nearly a year of being very ill with undiagnosed and then misdiagnosed and then very late-diagnosed Lyme disease, at the prompting of friends we made a GoFundMe site to help raise money for my very complicated treatments. I received $15,800 from 250 donations, most of it all in the first weeks. It not only saved my life, but it did make me feel as Palmer does — I had this very optimistic view of people, the world, community.
But, like Palmer’s story, mine turned a bit sour, too. A year and a half later, when I was in remission, I posted photos of my newish poodle, and a writer wrote a friend of mine and asked, "Did I pay for that dog?" She also wondered why I hadn't thanked her for helping me when I was sick. (I had thanked everyone many times on social media and on the site. But, a huge chunk of my donors were anonymous — I have to assume this writer was, too, because her name does not even appear on the list.) Another time, a woman I house-sat for in the city got mad at me for not leaving money behind for her place — even though she had said I could stay for free — because I had posted some shoes on Facebook (that a family member had gifted me), and she said she thought I was someone sick who she was helping, not someone out buying expensive shoes. More recently, it was someone I'd never heard of who, out of nowhere, got very upset because I posted a photo of the Chateau Marmont lunch menu from a business meeting. This person wanted to know how I could afford that and why I was not paying people back instead — he went as far as saying that they'd be happy to give money to someone who wasn't out getting wasted every night!
This is the dark side of asking for help, and I, unlike Amanda Palmer, will probably not do it again.
Not even after reading this book.
And, this is the point of The Art of Asking. Anyone can see the ample Palmer hate that tends to get more press than the also quite sizable Palmer love. But, the book is more valuable as a testament to how she persevered over all that and still believes in asking. At her most interesting, Palmer’s story is the story of a triumph of personality. She may make mistakes — in fact, she almost relishes in her missteps and imperfections — but there is something in her personality that wins. I can’t be inspired because I’m not her, but I can’t deny it is something to witness.
Where The Art of Asking falters is as interesting testimony in the discussion of art and commerce. To what degree is the tension between the two real or imposed? What should be free? What should you do for free? Palmer only has her own anecdotal experience, though it could actually provide an argument for not asking. Again, what Palmer has that she can’t prescribe here is a personality that makes all things possible — a personality that can endure Internet tar and feathers and still give her a fan base and supporters that border on religious devotees. There is a cult of Palmer — which you can also here apply to brand, platform, etc. — and as long as she is always on-brand with herself she is on-trend with her fans. Throughout the book, she has the cult-leader charisma — speaking often in all-cap mantras and aphorisms that can span sounding Hallmark to Holzer. She has created her own world, almost her own planet. There are enough people who want to join that she almost doesn’t have to worry about converting new ones.
In this way, the book fails where Palmer wins. If you can handle lots of writer disclaimer parentheticals — several that are addressed to her mother, à la HI MOM — and, sure, some indulgence and self-importance, you will be entertained with this book. But, feeling angry at Palmer, at the book, at her husband, at her support, is like fuming at the over-earnest, super-extroverted theater kid who was always either jazz-handing or noogie-ing. So often the media would like us to think The Hot Mess is really our big problem — or that young women and their bodies and their ideas are what's causing American culture to crumble — but these warnings are hollow distractions at best. You can’t look away from Ms. A. Fucking P., but not because she is a train wreck — you can’t look away because she is entertaining. And, that has always been one of the purest forms of power.