A Gift and a Commodity

Jonathan Lethem talking with Michael Silverblatt (KCRW's Bookworm, 7/19/07) about his latest work, You Don't Love Me Yet:

What bothers me about plagiarism is not that I don’t believe there can be such a thing. Anyone can identify the fringe activity where something is appropriated joylessly and unimaginatively and deceptively. And we can all condemn that very easily. But what fascinates me is that people work so hard to ignore the resemblance between that activity and what artists do routinely, necessarily all the time in their procedure which is grab on to stuff, move it around, transform it. And when the same thing is done and value is added and influence is acknowledged, well this is culture making. It's not some minority activity, this is culture making at its most central. This is what people do.

It's not that an act of art making is either a commodity transaction or a gift transaction—to use Lewis Hyde's vocabulary, the author of The Gift—but that it’s innately both. If I do what I do—do what I mean to do—when I offer a book into the world, sure I’d like to get paid. But if it’s any good at all, I hope to transmit something far more valuable than the $23.95 you’ve shelled out at the bookstore. I want it to sink into you and become a part of you and trouble you. It’s something I could never ideally be repaid for and I wouldn’t want to try. So it’s a gift and a commodity at the same moment. And this is what artists do.