Gift or Trade?

Lewis Hyde in The Gift says this about Warren Hagstrom’s work on the organization of science — “He begins his discussion of the commerce of ideas in science by pointing out that ‘manuscripts submitted to scientific periodicals are often called ‘contributions,’ and they are, in fact, gifts.’ It is unusual for the periodicals that print the work of scientists to pay their contributors; indeed, the authors’ institutions are often called upon to help defray the cost of publication. ‘On the other hand,’ Hagstrom says, ‘manuscripts for which the scientific authors do receive financial payments, such as textbooks and popularizations, are, if not despised, certainly held in much lower esteem than articles containing original research results.’”

Hyde then asserts parenthetically, “The same is true in the literary community. It is the exception, not the rule, to be paid for writing of literary merit, and the fees are rarely in accord with the amount of labor. There is cash in ‘popular’ work – gothic novels, thrillers, and so forth, but their authors do not become bona fide members of the literary community.”

There’s much here that I’m uncomfortable here — I object to Hyde’s dismissal of gothic novels and thrillers, and would question whether there is, or at least whether there ought to be, a literary community in quite the sense that there’s a scientific community… While science cannot function without peer-reviewed journals, the same isn’t ultimately true of literature. Yet I do think part of what Hyde says here is true, and that part may provide us with the basis of an anthropological explanation for why “ads don’t sell books,” for why word of mouth recommendations are what sell books… and for the reported statistic that the majority of books purchased in the U.S. are purchased as gifts for someone else…

Hyde writes, “The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market. He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.” I think many writers alternate uneasily between seeing things Hyde’s way and seeing the problems faced by writers as just a special case of the problems faced by skilled craftspeople generally. These lines from Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero seem explicitly to reject the idea of art as a gift —

“You are given a trade, not a gift. There need not be intensity or darkness in the service of it.”

— until one notices that Ondaatje’s first line here contradicts itself – anything you “are given” must by definition be “a gift…”

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