Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” is not about crowdfunding. Her TED talk covers that just fine. It is a love story about art, audience and the business of both, starring two men (a mentor and a husband), and one woman, Palmer herself. The indie cabaret pianist is not everyone’s darling. The internet routinely critiques Palmer’s privilege, patriotism, ableism, feminism. One person’s read of her as genuine and sassy is another’s self-absorbed and tone-deaf.
Palmer wrote a portrait of an artist in real time, an artist flailing in front of us, and when an artist flails, we can either point and laugh or we can learn something. Palmer’s book is a segmented essay of varying brilliance, covering an intensely rough year where her best friend and mentor Anthony is diagnosed with cancer and she deeply questions her marriage to Neil Gaiman because of his emotional distance and lack of dancing ability.
Sometimes Palmer sounds like she’s just extending her TED talk, throwing vague bits of pop research around to support her theses about how women don’t take themselves seriously enough or how failed Kickstarter campaigns can be salvaged with just a bit more communication. While the crowdfunding chat is interesting, her bald reductions strike me as fleeting in a way the art of asking itself will never be, and I’d guess most readers, myself included, picked up the book hoping Palmer’s creative and personal chutzpah would rub off.
The book’s strongest moments come from human connection. Palmer’s five years spent in a wedding dress, perched on a milk crate, and handing flowers to passersby manifests itself in a vibrancy of scene. The weight of her relationship with Gaiman, while not always fully drawn, is well-sketched in brief, paranoid dialogue.
Palmer spins an epic yarn—that happens to be her life—and ties it to a philosophy of unfettered experiment, of asking. Though the book cracked the New York Times bestseller list, I think Palmer, unfortunately, will always be too divisive a figure to make “The Art of Asking” a widely respected classic. But that’s OK, because the ones who want to hear her message—the confident listeners, the nervous artists, the awkward lovers—will put it to good use. (Liz Baudler)
“The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help”
By Amanda Palmer
Grand Central Publishing, 352 pages, $27