Recommended Reading: The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

IMG_5370As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I do not have strong Feelings, as many do, about Amanda Palmer, singer and performance artist perhaps best known for her punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls. She gave a very well-received TED talk in 2013 and is now the best-selling author of The Art of Asking*.

[You may have heard of her with respect to her Kickstarter campaign that garnered more than a million dollars to produce an album, as well as the ensuing controversy regarding volunteer musicians (overblown, from where I sit). Or you might know of her tangentially since she’s married to Neil Gaiman, author extraordinaire of various works of speculative fiction (here’s a review). A friend in high school (brilliant, creative, and rather sad) was a big fan of Dresden Dolls, so I’ve kept an ear out for Ms. Palmer over the years, and she pops up pretty frequently in my various newsfeeds since she was based in Boston for many years.]

I read this book out of sheer curiosity; I find Ms. Palmer fascinating. Though her lyrics, several of which are included in The Art of Asking, reveal an introvert’s self-examination and anxieties, she’s outspokenly open about much of her personal life (from sharing finances with her spouse to not shaving her legs) and her artistic process. You might get a sense of this openness from the book’s cover. She’s worked as a street performer and recently appeared in only body paint to benefit the New York Public Library. She and Mr.Gaiman have an open marriage. In essence, she does things I would be utterly terrified to do or utterly uninterested in doing.

And she makes her living by making art, which most writers will tell you is extremely difficult in this day and age. The Art of Asking is a memoir that also explains how and why she is able to do this.

The book shifts back and forth in time, but the touchstone is Ms. Palmer’s street performance as “The Eight-foot Bride” in Harvard Square. Wearing a wedding dress and painting her face white, she stood silently on milk crates in the bustling square; when someone dropped money in the jar she set out, she theatrically handed the person a flower from her bouquet. The performance went on until she ran out of flowers (or until it rained). This is her theory of the arts economy in miniature: artists should put their work out into the world, and ask for compensation from those who connect with it, being prepared for the fact that most people will walk by without leaving any of their change behind. Build on those connections, ask for help when you need it (without shame, without expectation), and eventually everything will work out. And more than work out: the community you build will function even in your absence; people will find each other and help each other based on their shared connection.

The fan connection part of this model—-making art for a specific audience, to find that audience rather than making something and hoping it will become a hit—-reminds me of writer Diana Gabaldon, who maintains a personal connection with fans better than almost any other writer I know of (Neil Gaiman also comes to mind, perhaps unsurprisingly). Ms. Gabaldon writes her own posts on facebook, comments on fan art, keeps readers up to date with excerpts from her work in progress, even visits book blogs that review her books (like this one, actually). Result: devoted fans who are happy to pay for the art that she makes, and who joyfully connect with other fans over matters Outlander-related (knitting!) and not.

Accustomed to doom and gloom about the state of the arts and humanities, I found Ms. Palmer’s optimism and practical suggestions refreshing; I’d definitely recommend the book to enterprising new artists.

But wait, you’re thinking. What about the memoir part of the memoir?

Well, it’s terribly interesting, as you might expect from an indie rock star. Putting on an act to get out of a terrible record contract, pop-up ukulele shows with six people, getting trapped in Iceland but still finding fans, and masters-level couchsurfing all make appearances. Here’s a passage about the latter I liked:

Couchsurfng is about more than saving on hotel costs. It’s a gift exchange between the surfer and the host that offers an intimate gaze into somebody’s home, and the feeling of being held and comforted in their personal space. It’s also a reminder that we’re floating along due to a strong bond of trust, just like when I surf the crowd at a show, safely suspended on a sea of ever-changing hands. (157)

The book is also three love stories. One is about Amanda Palmer’s love for her community of fans and fellow artists; one is the tale of how she fell in love with Neil Gaiman (apparently, I learned at their event at the Boston Book Festival, when they couldn’t agree on his wording in recounted arguments, she let him write his own dialogue), and one is the story of her lifelong love for Anthony, her neighbor, friend, mentor, advisor, and relationship coach. They met when she was a girl, and he died after the book was published, but Ms. Palmer’s writing about his illness is a moving testament of the great love between kindred spirits of the platonic variety.

I have quibbles, of course. One involves her anecdote about Thoreau, a favorite of Ms. Palmer’s, who accepted help in the form of doughnuts baked by his mother (among other things) while he was living at Walden Pond. The problem with Thoreau, in my view, is not that he took his mother’s homemade doughnuts, but that he didn’t acknowledge the gift in his book on self-reliance—-of course the gendered nature of the labor that his mother performed is part of this issue. Ms. Palmer wouldn’t fail to offer thanks in this way; she heaps gratitude on the relevant parties.

On a more serious note, I don’t think she completely owns the mis-step she made when she wrote a poorly-received poem in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings. I’m all for empathy, but the way she chose to offer it was poorly timed and ill-considered, at the very least—-and I say that as someone who, with my family, was .3 miles from the infamous boat.  I think the often vitriolic and violent response to the poem was completely inappropriate and, as she writes, was difficult for her, but I would have liked to see some sort of re-assessment of the original incident.

Overall, however, Ms. Palmer’s writing is lively with piquant detail, her pacing is good, and her sincerity apparent. I’d like to read more about her adolescence (Why did performance art seem like a good idea? Whence the angst?) and her thoughts on parenthood now that she and Mr. Gaiman have a son. She notes that writing is not her preferred artform, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel to The Art of Asking in the next few years.

tl;dr: As Forster wrote, “Only connect.”

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

A literary-minded electrician (now out of business, alas) in our neck of the woods.

A literary-minded electrician (now out of business, alas) in our neck of the woods.

Books, Boston, October

Well, Dear Readers, I’ve had quite the literary month, getting out and about much more than I usually do in my quiet life. Perhaps you’d like the rundown? If so:

Hamlet: Yes, that one. I thought, London travel not exactly in my budget, that Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Dane was not a performance I’d be able to see. And then by chance I heard it was going to show in movie theaters, after which I promptly bought the last two tickets for that showing.

Verdict: Very good. Mr. Cumberbatch was intense, thrilling, athletic, funny, outshining most of the cast with the exception of the fabulous Ciarán Hinds (aka Frederick Wentworth in the only film adaptation of Persuasion you need to see) as Claudius. I wasn’t sold on this production’s take on Ophelia (played a bit unhinged before Polonius’s death), but her final exit was remarkably well done. I agree with the review my husband told me about later that suggested the play was overproduced after intermission. Still, nice set design, and I liked the costuming, which seemed like a bit of an homage to various earlier interpretations of the play. Funniest Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) I’ve ever seen.

I hear it’s coming back to theaters; if so, do go.

Nick Offerman: Okay, technically he was doing his humorist act (sans spouse Megan Mullally, sigh), but I’m calling this literary since he’s written two books (one of which is waiting on my nightstand/bookshelf to be read) and he’s in rehearsals for a Boston theatrical adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Verdict: Very Good. Funny (of course), with ridiculous songs, anecdotes, life advice, talk of woodworking, etc. Basically, it was like watching an alternate-universe version of Ron Swanson who actually enjoys the company of others. Best moment: He didn’t mention Parks & Rec until the very end (and you know how much I love that show, right?), but then had the entire audience singing along to “Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian.” Yeah, it was amazing.

Boston Book Festival

This is the first year I’ve been able to spend more than ten minutes at the BBF, and I’m very glad I did, though I din’t see much of the vendors (magazines, small presses, etc.) since they tore down pretty early on Saturday evening (just after 5). However . . .

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Kelly Link: So happy I got tickets this summer, because the crowd was huge (and appreciative).

Verdict: Excellent. Margaret Atwood is hilarious–just truly, wickedly funny, and Kelly Link was understatedly comic as she asked really interesting questions. I was expecting the conversation to focus mostly on The Heart Goes Last, Ms. Atwood’s most recent book, but instead it ranged over her childhood reading habits, how she approaches writing (like going into a dark wood, and with a character or scene in mind, not a message), reading the Victorians, and more. Wonderful. And bonus: both writers did a signing afterward, and Ms. Atwood signed my 1970 copy of an early book of poems (yes, I did tell her that I liked her Milton references in the new book, and she said “I’m glad.” Swoon).

James Wood: Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard and a literary critic for the New Yorker; some would argue (and have) that he’s the foremost literary critic writing in English. His approach is aesthetic rather than, say, historical or psychological.

Verdict: Very good. I haven’t heard an academic talk in quite some time, and this one was geared toward a wide audience, but one that would understand references to Flaubert and Nabokov, for instance. Mr. Wood talked about detail in fiction—why details stick with us after we read, how they function, why they function. Fascinating (and just when I was starting to worry that he wasn’t going to mention any woman writers, he referred to nearly half a dozen). He also did a signing at the end of the event, which was delightful since I’d just picked up his new book (The Nearest Thing to Life).

Colum McCann in conversation with Claire Messud: Amazingly, given how popular these two authors are, this event wasn’t ticketed, but there was once more a lively and interested crowd (great job by the BBF organizers in making sure the audio was top-notch). Colum McCann’s most lauded book to date is probably Let the Great World Spin (I haven’t read it, but loved Everything in This Country Must). Claire Messud is an acclaimed novelist, most recently of The Woman Upstairs (she also happens to be married to James Wood, who spoke just before this event).

Verdict: Good. The writers are friends and former colleaugues, which made for a relaxed rapport. Mr. McCann read from his new book (Thirteen Ways of Looking), and while his reading was very well done and affecting, I though it slowed down the pace of the conversation. I was interested to learn about the charity called Narrative 4 that he works co-founded, and saddened to hear of a terrible incident in which he was brutally beaten for trying to stop a man from beating his wife.

Amanda Palmer interviewed by Neil Gaiman: I’ll be honest with you, Dear Readers: I came for Neil Gaiman, one of the most reliably readable authors working today. And charming and philanthropic and all that good stuff. To be honest, I had, before hearing this talk, almost no opinion on Amanda Palmer (Mr. Gaiman is her husband), though I know she provokes Feelings of all sorts in various people (generally love or hate, from what I can tell).

Verdict: Very good. Ms. Palmer talked about the process of writing her memoir, The Art of Asking, and seemed no more self-indulgent than anyone else who’s interested in writing a memoir. She was genuine, honest (as far as this listener could tell), amusing, and shared a charming rapport with Mr. Gaiman. At the end of the talk, I decided I’d rather like to read her book, so well done there. Bonus: An appearance by Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings, which I commend to you; Ms. Popova has every metaphysician/Jeopardy nerd’s dream job), tempered slightly by I think a too-rosy view of Thoreau. Bonus 2: Ms. Palmer sang, and I loved her voice, which I was hearing for the first time (yes, your friendly neighborhood blogger was not cool enough to be listening to the Dresden Dolls in high school).

[Boston book blogging friends: Meet up next year at the 2016 Boston Book Festival?]

Whew. And that’s all she wrote. For now.