To describe Amanda Palmer as a divisive figure would be somewhat of an understatement. To some, she’s a creative genius who breaks down boundaries in communicating with her audience. To others, she’s a spoiled narcissist who relies on her enormous privilege and little else to achieve her goals. Her detractors are seen as vicious misogynists who hate the idea of a woman with an opinion; her fans are seen as evangelical and naive people who won’t hear a word said against their heroine.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere inbetween. Palmer’s first book, The Art Of Asking, is part-autobiography, part-self help book, and partly an attempt to redress the balance against some of the more vicious criticisms against her. In her writing, Palmer appears to be neither angel nor devil, but a likeable, funny and articulate woman who can be naive and sometimes less than self-aware of how her actions may come across to others. A human being, in other words.
The inspiration for The Art Of Asking lies in Palmer’s famous TED talk, an affecting 13 minute speech in which she described her journey from working as a ‘living statue’ in Boston to becoming an international rock star whose work is mainly financed through the direct support of her fans. For her book, Palmer expands on many of the subjects she touched upon in that talk, while also reminiscing on her life and career to date. It’s arguably the more autobiographical elements of the book that are the most engaging: when she writes about her life, and the ‘supporting cast’ of people in her life, such as her husband Neil Gaiman, her best friend and mentor Anthony Martignetti and a succession of fans who she becomes friends with (such as Yana, an Austrailian woman born with achondroplasia), she writes with passion and obvious love, and it’s here that the book really comes to life.
Palmer also puts up a strong and convincing defence of crowd-sourcing: as she writes, she’s not begging for money – she’s looking for an emotional connection with her audience, which she dates back to her days working as a living statute in a wedding dress. When people dropped a dollar at the Bride’s’ feet, she would hand them a rose, and make eye contact with them: in this way, she feels as she’s connecting with people who are lonely, or just searching for something indefinable. That fleeting moment of human interaction could have changed their day, and Palmer expertly uses the same theory when talking about connecting with her fans on the internet: personally answering all emails, tweeting incessantly (although she rather irritatingly calls it ‘twittering’) and, in the early days of the Dresden Dolls, administering the band’s mailing list.
Palmer’s writing style is rather haphazard – she flies from one subject to the next with barely any room to breathe, and she crams in all the major incidents of her life: her early success with the Dresden Dolls, the battles with her record company Roadrunner, and her discovery of Kickstarter and the enormous success of her campaign to finance her album Theatre Is Evil. Her initial meeting and subsequent romance with Gaiman is also covered (sometimes in rather too much detail), and their relationship comes across as sincere, loving and rather sweet.
There are times though when it’s impossible not to become a bit irritated with her. There’s a clumsy defence of the occasion when she felt moved to write a poem about the Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and there doesn’t seem to be any recognition of the fact that, having a solid, fiercely loyal fanbase, and a millionaire novelist for a husband, it’s not too difficult for her to set up some self-financing by simply asking – it may not be that easy for, shall we say, less privileged people.
Yet despite a few problematic areas, this remains an engaging and readable book which gives a thoughtful and articulate analysis of the often misunderstood topic of crowd-sourcing. More importantly, it also provides us with an opportunity to think again about an often misunderstood artist.
Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is out now through Piatkus. Tour dates and further information can be found on her official website here.