Giving It Away
In the latest issue—May/Summer 2012—of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program director Robin Hemley makes a case for the gift economy of literary magazines in his essay “Writing for Free.” Of course this is an easy position for Hemley to take, as he recieves a regular salary from the university, and Hemley himself admits as much. Nonetheless, his overall point remains valid.
In the same vein as Lewis Hyde’s well-known book The Gift, Hemley argues that, even when writers aren’t rewarded in direct monetary terms for the publication of their writing, this doesn’t mean there aren’t real benefits to the publication, though they may not be readily apparent. It’s not a new argument, but Hemley lays it out succinctly and with compelling personal examples. Hemley begins with the “Dispatches from Manila” column he wrote for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency when he was in the Philippines. He didn’t get paid for the column, but it forced him to work on a topic he was already interested in pursuing and garnered him a considerable amount of free advertising. As another example, Hemley brings up a decision by his friend Steve Yarbrough to give an essay to Michigan Quarterly Review as opposed to other, “heavier hitting” and better-paying publications. Yarbrough made his choice “because the editor there had always been a supporter of his and had published his first fiction.” The MQR publication eventually led to the reprinting of the essay in Utne Reader and work writing in Hollywood, paid work.
As founding editor of Defunct, Hemley is himself “an editor who doesn’t pay.” Defunct is a beautiful, well-designed online publication (Marcelle Heath wrote about it for Luna Park back in 2010), functioning “as a literary repository for everything that’s had its day, from defunct technologies to defunct religions and fads and foods and beliefs.” The latest issue has some interesting new work from David Shields, Paul Collins, and Elizabeth Kadetsky, along with stunning photographs from featured artist Noah Doely, such as “Naturalist,” shown above.
What does Hemley think about not paying his writers? “I wish we could pay them,” he writes. Throughout the essay it’s apparent Hemley wishes things were otherwise, that authors received generous remuneration for their work in real dollars. Though publications such as Electric Literature and One Story work hard to put sound financial compensation for writers at the forefront of their mission, the majority of literary magazine have never had the funds to do so. It’s the nature of the work. Alongside such pieces as Nicholas Ripatrazone’s recent essay on author payments at The Millions, Hemley’s essay adds to the necessary exploration of the unusual economy of literary art in the 21st century.