Book Review

The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. By Amanda Palmer. Grand Central Publishing, 2014. 337 pages. Hardcover.

Review by Francis DiMenno

The world is just a little town/

Everybody putting everybody down–John Lennon

Is Amanda Palmer a pretentious, shrieking cyberspace mooch, or an exceptionally talented artist and consensus-builder who has also mastered the ins and outs of social media marketing? Some have suggested she is a shameless narcissist, while others maintain that she’s some modern-day combination of Patti Smith and Jesus H. Christ, but I wouldn’t go that far in either direction.  Rather, she reminds me very much of the protagonist of the song “Sally in the Alley,” by the Holy Modal Rounders:

Sally takes her pleasure where she pleases

Sally gets her lovin’ where she can

Sally is a natural born child of Jesus

Sally is a match for any man

Basically, Amanda Palmer is a force of nature. At least, that is the distinct impression I get from her surprisingly thoughtful and inspirational quasi-memoir.

She apparently identifies with the good old Dalai Lama, which would put her squarely in the left-libertarian political camp, along with the Occupy protestors (whom she also identifies with) and Henry David Thoreau, whom she name-checks more than once.

No wonder so many people profess to dislike her–she is, in essence, a practicing anarcho-syndicalist. Whether she knows it or not.

They hate you if you’re clever/

And they despise a fool–John Lennon

Amanda Palmer reminds me an awful lot of plucky heroes and heroines such as Barefoot Gen and Little Orphan Annie, though she is neither an atomic bomb victim nor a penniless orphan periodically abandoned by her war profiteer “Daddy”.

You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear. ― Amanda Palmer

Actually, Amanda Palmer didn’t say that. She could have. But she didn’t, Sammy Davis Jr. said that.

As a matter of fact, The Art of Asking is the most inspirational showbiz biography I have read since Yes I Can! by Sammy Davis, Jr. Like Amanda Palmer,

Sammy is blisteringly honest, if sometimes sententious; prone to saying things like:

Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to get insulted.

Substitute “woman” for “Negro” and you have Amanda Palmer’s whole situation in a nutshell. Why is there so much dislike for Amanda Palmer? She never once uses the “j” word, much to her credit, but maybe the very people who criticize her so harshly are simply jealous of her. What with their jobs and kids and pets and mortgages and car payments and all the rest, they are encumbered. They are mostly waiting to retire for a few years, and then drop dead.

And Amanda Palmer gives the impression that she’s doing just whatever she wants to at all times, though I suspect that is far from the case. Because she’s basically the CEO and CFO of Amanda Palmer, Inc., and that’s a 24-hour job. Other than her penchant for ceaseless self-promotion, she has a great many admirable traits, foremost among them empathy, and, as far as I can tell, she harms nobody. We don’t hear from disgruntled service workers or cab drivers who she stiffs on tips; we don’t read tell-all exposes in the National Enquirer from doormen and hoteliers who say she is a shitty human being. So–why all this hatred? Why? Why? One can scarcely imagine how she feels when she reads odious and hateful comments such as these:

Amanda Palmer’s poetry is so bad that, when exposed to it, death row convicts run screaming down the Last Mile in three minutes and fifty-nine seconds, then strap themselves into Old Sparky and holler for the juice.

It’s so bad that when tiger sharks hear it, they leap out of the water and lie gasping and twitching on the shore in order to escape it.

It’s so bad that when Saudi Arabian sheiks read it, they blow themselves to smithereens and murmur “Inshallah” as their brains and turbans splatter the palace walls.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to differ. It’s not really as bad as all that. Anyway, The Art of Asking is crammed chock-full of sage advice about how to exploit loopholes in the star-making machinery, albeit through dedicated hard work. For example:

There is no ‘correct path’ to becoming a real artist. (43)

The whole point of being an artist, I thought, was being connected to people.(122)

For most of human history, musicians and artists have been part of the village, accessing one another freely. (171)

Look at the media: we deify artists one second, demonize them the next. Artists internalize this and perpetuate the cycle; artists do this to each other, and they do it to themselves. (220)

…even the perfect tools aren’t going to help us if we can’t face one another. If we can’t see one another. (303)

Amanda Palmer: a second-class intellect? Maybe. But a first-rate temperament. Her emotional intelligence is off the charts. You feel guilty about even trying to quantify it, because if you do, you’re missing the point. She. Is. A. Force. Of. Nature.

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