Copyright 2009 Ben S. Pollock
A newsmagazine commentary from a couple of weeks ago stopped me cold. I still think about it, in a similar way a comic panel from last year comes up, which has put me off Outback’s Bloomin’ Onions. These are like cloying old songs that once heard reverberate for days within the skull.
Speaking of skulls, let’s discuss blockheads, as considered by the venerable Samuel Johnson:
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
For a long time I fully agreed, only that it didn’t yet apply to me, making me a blockhead, a fool. Brick obviously has no money behind it. Or in front, either. I’ve been paid for writing only a few times per century. Oh, there’s been indirect compensation, writing a column a week while editing the other 35–39 hours. For putting up with such an arrangement, Dr. Johnson would kick people like me out of the coffee house. I wonder if that’s how pubs came to flourish, when the English coffee houses emptied for want of compensated scribes.
Noting someone named Francis Wilkinson agrees with Dr. Johnson does not raise the former to the latter. Earlier in March he wrote in The Week magazine more than 800 words what the good doctor accomplished in 10. I see Wilkinson’s point, and even though it is wrong, it still makes me angry.
Rather than quote and quote the essay, why don’t you click to it and see for yourself. In a hurry? Allow me: Wilkinson goes into a fair amount of detail about how writers in recent decades invariably were paid, though rarely much. Now, however, there’s even less pay, relative to inflation but more so relative to Internet opportunities. He believes that only writers whose money comes from elsewhere will be able to afford to produce and the society will lose needed voices. Wilkinson has one personal example: His experience editing at the online Huffington Post. It pays writers nothing yet has been overrun with submissions since its beginning.
Wilkinson professes not to understand. Yet his credit line indicates he is his news magazine’s executive editor. His column is a sideline, proving his point, that the world of prose will narrow to those who can afford to. Only he avoids the argument. “HuffPo” attracts writers who find satisfaction outside of remuneration. Most writers do.
Even in Johnson’s time, 1709–1784, few writers wrote for money and the rest were not blockheads. Those Brits who were literate did not have phones, podcasts or television. If they weren’t face-to-face, they wrote — letters. If you couldn’t write, you’d hire someone to take your dictation.
Paging Cyrano de Bergerac, white courtesy telephone. Paging Cyrano …”
For centuries, people have written to communicate. They wrote in order to be written back to. They wrote in order to be heard or, rather, to be read. Money would be nice, but it’s not the only economy. Here are two terrific examples, John and Abigail Adams; you may know them from their TV show, now on DVD.
There’s a prime reason why people make words, crafts or art besides getting greenbacks. I’m only now learning about this so can’t explain it well. Its common name is the Gift Economy. It’s not some form of communism/socialism/terrorism/anarchism out to defeat capitalism while boosting Rush Limbaugh’s ratings to oppose. Giving is reciprocal, but precision in the exchange often devalues it. For young geeks, file sharing is a Gift Economy exchange, not a Market Economy one. Wilkinson only acknowledges the Market (or Barter) Economy. Gift Economy is what sociologists and philosophers, and law school heroes and surely economists (though I haven’t read them yet) have termed this, awkward for the ambiguity of “gift,” and created models and histories for it.
Most of law professor Lawrence Lessig’s books start from the premise of the Gift Economy. Lessig helped found Creative Commons, to protect those intellectual rights worth bothering about. Lewis Hyde explores the world of artists and art lovers in his book The Gift, and the more recent Common as Air, where trade can be explained only partially by exchanging money for a picture to hang or a book to read.
The Gift Economy can help explain why capping the accessibility of free news on the Internet will prove to be impossible. The Gift Economy is not a competitor to capitalism as communism is commonly thought to be. Gift and Market are complementary. Each fills different needs of society, and a healthy society allows a flowing equilibrium between both of them.
The Market Economy and Wilkinson find an oversupply of writers. The Gift Economy does not tabulate them. Most writing these days more closely resembles letters than anything else.
The Gift Economy even applies to market-successful artists. It does not apply only to art no one buys or capital-L literature few read. Writing to formula as a hack is no gift. Stephen King is wildly successful and enviably prolific, yet in reading any of his works the kick this artist gets from spinning tales is as obvious as the nose on Cyrano’s face.
Update to Johnson:
No one but a hack ever wrote, except for money.”
People like us enjoy creating — words, woodcarving, fishing lures — and it’s a reverse–lagniappe if someone actually takes a look. As I mature, it grows more attractive.
This Good Depression (the Great Depression was suffered by the Greatest Generation, and at best we’re just a Good Generation) accelerates such contemplation. All that I previously understood was based on Johnson, that a lack of pay proves futility. It does not. No that I won’t accept lucre, but my world has gotten a lot simpler since I quit scheming to write for money.
I’m not blocked anymore.