Whenever I open a book I go straight to the acknowledgements. And then when I finish the book I return to them. For me the acknowledgements are a strange kind of map to the book I’ve just read, or rather a set of clues to where the book came from, how it transmogrified from a bunch of ideas in some writer’s head into a fully-fledged world that I can spend time in.
Acks are crucial. Yesterday, over at Tingle Alley the proprietress posted some interesting thoughts on this micro-genre. Those posts and follow-up comments got me thinking about exactly why I think acks are so important.
My default position is that no one writes alone and acknowledgments are the proof of that, the place where a writer gets to acknowledge their debts. The length of the acknowledgements section is directly proportional to how many people were involved in making the book happen. Thus non-fiction books have much longer acks than fiction ones. My first book, a heavily researched non-fiction tome, has acknowledgments that go for five pages. It had to because that many people helped me research and write the book over the many years between beginning my phd thesis in 1992 and the resulting book being published in 2002. My novel has only one page of acks because it took less than two years from conception to publication—trust me, in this business that’s amazingly quick—and thus required the assistance of many fewer people.
Acknowledgments admit that a book emerges not just from one writer, but from a community. Without these particular editors, copyeditors, librarians, friends, lovers, children, pets, this particular book would be a different book. There are different sets of fingerprints on every page.
Besides, finding your name in the acks is one of life’s great pleasures. Every time it happens to me I’m dead chuffed, why should I withhold that chuffage from the people who’ve helped and supported me?
In the Tingle Alley comments Jenny D talks about her embarrassment at the extreme length of the acknowledgments in her first novel. It took a long time to write and involved the input of many people, some of them very famous (like Joyce Carol Oates & J. M. Coetzee—I confess I haven’t heard of all the writers she mentions, but I’m plenty impressed by Oates & Coetzee) who Jenny D claims to have hounded for their input. She worries that her acks thus look like a horrendous name-dropping fest as well as reminding herself of her callow youth.
I have done exactly the same. I still flush with horror over the earnestness with which I harassed Janette Turner Hospital when I took her one semester undergraduate creative writing course. But here’s the thing: it’s one of the best ways to learn your craft—whatever your craft may be, plumbing, painting, singing, basketball—you go after older, wiser, better, more patient people than yourself and ask them to teach you. And sometimes they do. It’s not something to be embarrassed about, though, of course, both Jenny D. and myself are. But, you know, there’s not a lot the nineteen-year-old me did that I’m not embarrassed by now (not to mention the me’s at a whole raft of other ages, some distressingly close to my current age).
While agreeing that there’s much that is wonderful about acknowledgments, Ms Tingle Alley also enjoys
the pristine simplicity of a ‘To Véra’ and that, say, Lolita contains no references to librarians or pedophiles who were helpful in the writing of the novel. Yet when I ask myself why, I have no idea. Except that it’d be like finishing watching a play and having the costume designer and props guy come trotting out for a bow, like having the backstage come forward.
That it would ruin the magic of a novel you’ve been lost in to have the artifice, the underpinnings, held up for scrutiny?
Sometimes I feel the same, or not quite the same. But there are books that would be better off ack-less. There’s one (which I won’t name) that I love, yet the acknowledgments are so cringe-making I have to rush past them, pretend they’re not there. Trust me, I have thought about ripping the offending pages out, but I suspect that in their absence they would loom even larger. They are truly that embarrassing. One paragraph is devoted—in ornate language, liberally festooned with smatterings of Italian—to detailing how much this particular writer loves their spouse. It is to retch.
I imagine it is just this kind of acknowledgments that is spoofed here (via Tingle Alley) or that Salon spoofs in an essay on the acks of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s books (thanks, Ginger). But I can’t say because I haven’t read her books. Not even the acks. And though these spoofs are clever I could only half enjoy them, because I have written gushing acknowledgments, and can imagine mine being mocked in just that way, and because I believe it’s better to gush (however cringe-makingly) than not to acknowledge at all.
And yet, I know writers—generous, big-hearted, wonderful writers—who do not have acknowledgments in their books. I asked why. "Because," one told me, "I have thanked the people who need thanking, I see no need to do it publicly. They know who they are." Another said it struck them as unnecessary and somehow crass. Another maintains that most acknowledgments pages are show-offy: Look at me! I have a cat, a husband, a wife, friends, children, editors, agents! I exist! They feel that the book should be left to stand on its own. That once published, the writer should step out of its way, not loudly proclaim ownership for several pages.
I kind of agree, but when I look at the acknowledgments page of a book I’ve just read, especially if I’ve really enjoyed it, I’m looking at some hint of where it came from, who helped it into life. I’m looking for its place in a community, in several communities. I’m looking for the connections that mark it as part of the web of humanity. Perhaps, I’m looking in some small way for some other, more tangible way it’s connected to me. Not just because I love it, but because I also have family and friends and editors and agents. Or maybe I’m just vainly hoping my name is in there too and I’ll find it if I just look hard enough.
New York City, 10 June 2005