March 18, 1992
In his wise and lovely book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde has this to say about creativity and gratitude:
Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. … The future artist finds himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labor in the service of art. … Those of us who do not become artists nonetheless attend to art in similar spirit. We, too, submit ourselves to the labor of becoming [equal to] the gift. …Giving a return gift is the final act in this labor of gratitude, and is also, therefore, the true acceptance of the original gift.
This seems to me a pretty good phenomenology of book reviewing, at least of the ideal part of it. We’ve all had our gifts awakened, our selves evoked, by books and we’re all looking to pay the debt, to pass the gift along.
To each of us his or her own form of gratitude. What I prize above all in the writers I most cherish is a certain disposition or virtue, call it disinterestedness. I mean that rare and (for me, anyway) supremely difficult ability to care more for getting things right than for winning arguments, for understanding rather than for being admired. An intellectual hatred is the worst, perhaps because intellectual pride is the most insidious. Those writers who’ve won through in this respect – Mill, Orwell, Randolph, Dwight Macdonald, Michael Harrington, among others – may not be the most innovative or influential, the “strongest,” of social and cultural critics by contemporary lights. But one could do worse, I think, than to try to pass along by example their exquisite gifts of probity and intellectual generosity.
I’m no less indebted to editors, of course, than to writers. Bernard Shaw once said: “A first-rate editor is a very rare bird indeed: two or three to a generation, in contrast to swarms of authors, is as much as we get.” Shaw was exaggerating, as usual, or else this is an exceptional generation, since I’ve already had twice that many first-rate editors myself, beginning at the Village Voice with the legendary Eliot Fremont-Smith and the fabulous M. Mark. Kit Rachlis has stormed triumphantly across the continent from the Boston Phoenix to the Voice to the L.A. Weekly and has graciously taken me, or my byline, along. Ben Sonnenberg, who made us all the splendid gift of Grand Street, was especially, blessedly generous to me. Brian Morton of Dissent – whose superb first novel, The Dylanist, some of you will know – has pondered many a problem of political morality and prose style with me. Askold Melnyczuk of Agni, another gifted though as yet undiscovered novelist, is the only editor, in fact the only person, I’ve ever met with a name as difficult to pronounce as my own. This has meant a lot.
Thanks, finally, to Sue Standing for gifts beyond all gratitude.
New York City
March 18, 1992