Good Prose: Art and Commerce

A few years ago, we did a book club at The High Calling on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. Much of Hyde’s prose was erudite and difficult for me to grasp completely. But I understood his description of the gift economy. I understood what he said about the way the gift moves in a circle—somehow returning blessing from whence it came.

In this week’s chapter of their book Good ProseArt and Commerce, authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd bring up Hyde’s thoughts on gift economy.

Creativity, he says, proceeds from two gifts: the gift of talent and the gift of tradition, which informs and guides individual talent. And the act of creativity is itself a gift, which can’t be aimed at making money but must be freely given.
When I first read The Gift, I was just beginning in this writing thing. I had received little monetary reward for passing the gift (still haven’t). I remember thinking wistfully that this should be true. Society should support the artists and provide for them so that they will be free to make their art.
But, as Kidder and Todd point out, separating art from commerce is a difficult thing.
…The great prose art forms grew up in concert with the publishing business. Books must not only be written but must also be made, and historically the people who could make them soon became more than manufacturers. Publishers became arbiters of taste, of aesthetic as well as commercial value…

The authors discuss the modern advice most new writers are given: the stuff about “branding” and marketing, about developing an “elevator pitch”, and all this about the “platform”. They eschew all this as “nonsense”, saying, “…the best marketing plan may well be twenty or thirty pages of good prose.”

This is one of the shortest chapters in the book, but it packs a punch. Kidder and Todd wax poetic about doing the work for the work’s sake.

…A cook insists on a fresh herb, a carpenter repairs a piece of molding seamlessly, a radio journalist enlivens a report with a lyric phrase. It does not seem unreasonable to say that these gestures, these things that carry us beyond utility, that lie outside economic logic, are what make civilization worth inhabiting, and that their absence—which is frequent—can make the world a dispiriting place.
But perhaps the best words I carry from this chapter is the quote attributed to David Foster Wallace at the very end.
…It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved.
*Second draft
Consider your writing. Dig deep. Are you writing from the place of love or the place that wants to be loved?
And because I want to be part of the gift circle, if you leave a comment on this post by Sunday 5/5 at 10pm, you’ll be entered to win my gently used hard back copy of Erin McGraw’s lovely book Better Food for a Better World. Winner will be announced on Monday’s Playdate with God.

Next Wednesday, we will discuss the last chapter of Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction: Being Edited and Editing.

Other posts in this series: 



  1. Nancy Sturm says

    Laura, you’ve convinced me that Good Prose is a book well worth having. Thanks for sharing some of Kidder and Todd’s insights, and happy May Day!

  2. says

    I haven’t been reading the book, but I’ve been enjoying your reflections on it. Oh, heck, I always enjoy stopping by to see what you have to say.

    This is encouraging, truly. The cook insisting on a fresh herb, a writer insisting on the right word–these are things that have little to do with efficiency or getting a good return for one’s labor.

    Maybe I do need to read this book. I’ll add it to my wish list.

  3. says

    Interesting comments. I am working on a book proposal right now and struggling with filling in the blanks just right. You are correct, though, never surpasses good writing. That should come first.

  4. soulstops says

    Thank you, Laura, for sharing your thoughts on this book…been gleaning bits of wisdom from you 🙂 I’m realizing I can only write from that place of love if I first let Him love on me, receive His love then pass it on, otherwise I can too easily fall into that place of wanting to be loved…although I think that is part of being human…a maybe, tipping heavily toward out of love, but accepting our humanity?

  5. Pamela Kuhn says

    I learn so much from your posts. There’s always a takeaway bit of knowledge that helps me grow. How sweet of you to give away a book. The best gift of all!

  6. Hazel Moon says

    Working and receiving pay is good, but there is nothing worse than working and hating your job. You must love your work! The money comes after the love.

  7. Jody Collins says

    uhhhhhhhhh, this line:
    Consider your writing. Dig deep. Are you writing from the place of love or the place that wants to be loved?
    yeah, that’s convicting. Thanks for sharing this book with us, Laura.

  8. says

    This book is teaching me too, Pamela. I’m glad you found this post helpful. There is so much wisdom in the pages. I found it hard to choose what to write about!

  9. says

    Ooooh, this is good, Dolly. Yes, first I must receive the Love that surpasses all understanding. And, yes, I agree–we are on the constant roller-coaster. Maybe knowing this helps? Somehow?

  10. says

    Good luck with your book proposal, Jean! I have found that I would rather write a book than a proposal :). And I don’t think you have a problem with the good writing thing 🙂

  11. says

    And I always enjoy it when you stop by :). Take my word–you need to read this book! It’s so good, Nancy. It’s like…beauty and wisdom all wrapped up together in a box of practicality.

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