In Defense of a Fellow Artist and Human Being
How do you review someone’s life? It’s one thing to review a novel for plot weaknesses, character mishaps, and lackluster prose. It’s another to review non-fiction for its usefulness and persuasiveness. But what happens when the craft elements of fiction meet fact? Should it be judged on its prose? Should it be judged on its structure? Should it be judged like a long essay with a thesis and supporting evidence?
Should it even be judged?
Apparently, yes, it should be judged. Harshly, according to some of the reviews and comments on reviews I’ve seen on this book. Which is why I’m going to take a different approach than I normally would for this review. I’m going to tell you what I think about it, but I’m also going to tell you what I think of other people thinking about it, because I think it’s important to talk about vulnerability and self-image in relation to this memoir.
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer is a memoir unlike anything I’ve ever read. I don’t read many memoirs, so that might not mean much to you if you read a ton of them. But what I mean when I say it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read is that I mean that it’s a raw, funny, poignant, and polarizing account of what it means to be an artist in the postmodern era of Kickstarters, crowdfunding, and the dying image of the starving artist.
Yes, the splicing of the anecdotes is jarring, and a lot of the anecdotes covered her life on tour, but they’re not jarring to the point of confusion. The short anecdotes are, as she illustrates, the dots that she connects throughout her life. They are the same dots that go through the “art blender” — the ones that help her create the equally raw art that she is known for. To me, it represents all the anxiety, shame, guilt, and fear that she’s had to process in her mind during those chaotic times in her life. For this reason, I think how the memoir is structured, visually and textually, is very powerful (even the line breaks between the anecdotes are three dots). The prose and the points she makes just lend more power to the memoir itself.
So, on a craft standpoint, I loved every bit of it. But I’m afraid that if I leave it at that, I’d be avoiding the elephant in the room: the memoir’s message about asking for help.
After reading this, you will likely fall into one of three camps: the I-love-Amanda-Palmer camp, the Amanda’s-aight camp, or the I-hate-Amanda-Palmer camp. I’m in the I-love-Amanda-Palmer camp, and no matter what camp you’re in, I ask you to challenge yourself as to what’s keeping you in the camp your in.
The Art of Asking covers different aspects of the human experience, but what I found it to mainly deal with is the experience of being a female artist. It was about the irrational fear of asking your rich husband for help because of the fear of being seen as weak or dependent. It was about the knee-jerk, scripted response of “I don’t deserve to be paid for what I love to do” that’s deeply ingrained within art culture.
Yet, looking at other reviews of the memoir, it was almost as if people had read a completely different book than me.
First, Annalisa Quinn’s review of The Art of Asking claims that Palmer misses White privilege as the potential reason she’s so successful: “In our society, certain kinds of people are allowed to ask for things, and certain kinds of people are not. She writes as though the biggest obstacle to getting the help you need is a reluctance to ask — not, say, ingrained social structures having to do with race and class.”
Alright, Quinn. Fair point. White privilege is a real thing. If a White person asks for an Uber the same time as a Black person, that Uber will take longer for the Black person. If you have two identical resumes, but have each of them with different names, the one with the Whiter-sounding name will be more likely to get hired. I get where that criticism is coming from, because it’s NPR. It’s liberal. It’s political. And it’s empirically true. Depending on your race and class, you might not get the things you asked for, or will have a hard time working for them.
So, in a way, yes. Amanda Palmer appears to imply that all you have to do is ask for things and you’ll be happy, no matter what your race or class.
But that’s the thing: implication is not evidence. What seems is not what is. I can give you four anecdotes where Palmer counter-argues about how asking for things doesn’t come with a guaranteed yes: how a recently married couple made a Kickstarter to fund their honeymoon and got slammed by it, how one young man begged his aunt to forgive his mother dying of cancer and didn’t get that forgiveness, how an artist angered his many fans on his campaign by not communicating with them regularly, and how Amanda Palmer couldn’t get three old women in Scotland to help her hail a taxi when she busted her ankle on a run.
Yes, her memoir is about class — it mentions busking, working for tips, struggling for money, not realizing that people care about you and realizing it too late, but it’s not about race, and I don’t think it has to be. If it were, it would be a completely different book. And I don’t think it should be, because it’s about Amanda Palmer and Amanda Palmer’s struggles. Yes, as a biracial woman, I’d love for Amanda to talk about race and class more, but I’m not going to demand that of her. From what I’ve seen on her Twitter feed and Facebook pages, she’s politically active as hell. She’s out marching in Melbourne. She doesn’t shave her armpits as a form of body acceptance. I’m fine with her exactly as she is.
But some people aren’t. Some people don’t like how she’s “self-indulgent” in her memoir, or doesn’t have a beautiful writing style.
Um… hello? You realize this a memoir, right? This is a book about the author written by the author. This isn’t self-indulgent; this is self-reflective. You have to be willing to inquire into your life and yourself to write this kind of stuff. If you don’t want to know more about her, then read something else. And as for criticisms of her writing style, stop. Just. Stop. If you can’t get used to her using bold italics or being as casual and coarse in her language as can be, then read something else. This is her book, her writing, her style. She doesn’t have to be anything more than herself in this book.
And believe me, she’s herself one hundred percent. The flawed young artist that thinks her mother isn’t an artist because she works with computers, the anxiety-ridden newlywed that wrestles with the thought of losing her independence and the perceptions of herself in the fallout — She’s every bit herself.
This is who she is. Believe her. Believe her, and then leave her the-heck alone. Have some empathy, and do some research.
Don’t be an idiot like me when I first heard about her.
For the very, very short time I had a Tumblr account, I followed Neil Gaiman. I’d never read any of his books, but his name was tossed around a lot in my writerly circles, and his opinion on piracy in the digital book market made sense to me. Not to mention, the answers to some of his fans’ questions were downright witty and hilarious. All in all, I liked his vibes.
Then, one day — I don’t remember the exact circumstances — somebody mentions his wife Amanda Palmer, asks how she’s doing. Again, I’m fuzzy on the details. Whatever happened, the way Neil talked about Amanda Palmer, and the fact that she wasn’t Amanda Gaiman, left an impression on me. I remember thinking (exaggeration), “Oh, wow. She sounds so sweet! She sounds perfectly ordinary and quaint.”
You know… something completely assuming and stupid like that. Not one of my finer moments.
Fast forward about a year later, Tumblr’s not working out for me, so I quit. The whole Amanda Palmer thing slips out of my memory. I then stumble upon a Jeff Goins podcast with Steph Halligan as the guest. While talking about the intersection between art and entrepreneurship, she mentions Amanda Palmer’s TED talk “The Art of Asking.”
I watch the TED talk.
And I can’t help but feel mesemerized, watching this awesome woman with painted eyebrows and boots talk about how she went from Eight-Foot Busking Bride to 1.2 million-dollar Kickstarter-funded album. As a fellow artist, I can’t relate to her exactly, but I relate to her enough. I understand what she’s talking about and the feelings behind it. I haven’t had to do the busking part, but I’ve been seriously thinking about it. I’ve been going back and forth on whether to monetize my blog or even sell some songs I’ve written.
I google her, see that she’s written a book of the same name, find it in my library, and check it out.
And as I’m reading about this amazing artist, the pieces come together slowly and surely:
“Wait. Famous husband? Amanda Palmer, where have I heard that name before? Amanda… Neil… Neil Gai— Wait. Wait, wait, wait. WAIT. Yoooooooo! Whooaaaa!”
Holy mother of Jesus, was I wrong about her the first time around. My problem, it seemed, was that I initially underestimated her. I thought she wasn’t an artist on the same caliber as her husband. I thought she wasn’t cut for the limelight. I’d made up all kinds of narratives in my head about her with no evidence.
Other people, however, seem to overestimate her and paint her as something she’s absolutely not. They make narratives about her based on personal grudges toward her like not noticing them after one of their shows, or trying to base her actual personality on her artist persona (similar, but very different). Yes, she’s not perfect. She’s not a special snowflake; she admitted that to her mother.
Nobody is perfect. But at least she has the strength to sit down, write a book about it, and admit it. All these people calling her a narcissist, entitled, and self-indulgent don’t have any clue what they’re talking about. All the people who are confused at why she was okay with taking money from the street versus taking money from her husband don’t understand the toxicity of anxiety, shame, and stress that happens when you’re a high-functioning individual that maintains incredibly high standards of yourself as a human being and an artist.
Me? I get it.
And I’m sure many artists out there who want to take the first steps toward being paid for what they love will get it, too.