Acknowledging No One by Matt Rees

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Authors are posturing, self-aggrandizing assholes. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached after noting the trend for excessive “Acknowledgements” growing like mold over page on page of nonfiction books. These days they’re spreading their blight all over novels, too.

Here’s how I think it breaks down.

More than a few paragraphs of Acknowledgements in nonfiction: the author is trying to show how in-depth he went, how many experts he befriended, how much those experts and sources went out of their way to contribute to his work of genius. But it’s a sign of insecurity, a fear that the book itself won’t demonstrate any of those things.

More than a couple of lines in a novel (I don’t really approve even of that): a lonely soul who wants to reach out to his few remaining friends, or a journalist manqué who wants to prove that his work is grounded in reality by laying bare his research sources.

In both cases, it’s an exercise that’s of no use to a reader. In fact, it can turn readers against a writer. This reader, anyway.

The thanks to wife and kids which are the conclusion de rigeur of all Acknowledgments typically can be translated thus: “thank you for putting up with my utter and total absorption in my great work. I’m a genius and it took you lovely, lovely people to realize it and to make the sacrifices that give me the space to work.”

Take for example my university tutor. A delightful man. But in one of his many books, his acknowledgements ended with thanks to his wife for “keeping the black coffee coming” as he labored over his text late into the night. His wife was a major feminist literary theorist. I wondered what she thought of being cast as a good little woman. They’re since divorced, so perhaps I know now what she thought.

Among my foreign correspondent pals, there’s another element of weirdness to the Acknowledgments in their books.

First, you have to put in plenty of fellows with foreign names, so everyone will know that you got tight with the locals and didn’t get all your info from the US Embassy.

Second, you have to name all the other correspondents who hung out at parties with you. I’ve been named in the Acknowledgments of a number of books. In most cases I didn’t read the manuscript. Neither did I aid in the researching of the book. Maybe I shared a taxi with the fellow or cooked him dinner one night. I helped one of them get laid.

That gets me into their Acknowledgements pages?

Fiction Acknowledgements are even more troublesome. They started with writers thanking people who’d acted as sources. Let’s say a crime writer thanking a real-life detective who told him which donuts cops like best.

But now writers feel the need to thank their editors and their agents. Not me. My agent gets her percentage. That’s how she knows I love her. (Which I do.)

I met a good friend of mine at an Upper West Side diner in New York a couple of years ago. He’d just sent in the manuscript for his second book. It had taken him eight years to follow up on his prize-winning debut. He’d been awarded a number of fellowships in the meantime, but he was feeling pressured to add an Acknowledgements page with the names of the many people who’d contributed advice and support during that lengthy period.

“But in the end I wrote the damned book.” He stabbed at the bananas in his oatmeal with each syllable. “Just me.”

We settled on a brief, tasteful Acknowledgements in which he only thanked the universities and foundations that had given him shelter or money. Everyone else would have to make do with a thank-you note.

Why do I really dislike Acknowledgements? In fiction, in particular, I find there’s something juvenile about them. There’s a reason why rock bands fill their liner notes with chums they’d like to thank for letting them sleep on the floor, while fine artists don’t paste the names of their best buddies all over the gallery wall.

Then there’s the “luvviness” of it all. They start the music at the Oscars after 45 seconds of gushing from the winners. How many book Acknowledgements can you get through in that time these days?

Authors: If someone deserves your thanks so very much that you just can’t hold it in, just dedicate the book to them. Acknowledge no one.

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