Monday, August 27, 2012

Against Acknowledgments

August 24, 2012

Posted by  in The New Yorker

When networks like HBO began broadcasting dramas and sitcoms, it was a revelation to be able to watch a show free of commercial interruptions. Episodes no longer needed to be front-loaded with the minor dramatic cliffhangers that precede advertisements (although, as Emily Nussbaum has shown, that convention has curious staying power). Most important, writers could end episodes in the way they wanted—a final scene followed by an elegant epilogue of a credit sequence rather than a blaring station promo or advertisement for Flomax.
By eliminating these intrusions, television came nearer to approximating the total narrative immersion found in good novels. But this is a financially vulnerable time in book publishing, so just as television has grown more artistically refined, literature has tried to make itself more commercially visible. Authors are asked to promote not only their books but themselves, with book tours, book trailers, interviews, blogs, and an active social-media presence. And connected to these campaigns is the most irritating promotional addendum of all: the acknowledgments page.
A gratuitous supplement to the dedication page, acknowledgments can now be found at the conclusion of virtually every published novel, often running to as many as three pages and thanking scores of people. True, their existence is not entirely unprecedented. One earlier (and still used) form was called the Author’s Note. This typically appeared at the close of historical or autobiographical fiction, to account for any deviations from the factual record or to provide a shortlist of works consulted. These notes traditionally had an air of duress: “I find it obnoxious to have my methods questioned,” the writer seemed to be saying, “but my publisher wanted some clarification, so here it is.”
The point was that the novelist emerged from behind the curtain only reluctantly, in order to anticipate a query or assuage a qualm. What’s new about the current acknowledgments page is that it’s unsolicited—it appears like an online pop-up ad, benefiting no one but the author and his comrades. This is surely why these afterwords are often so garrulously narcissistic and strewn with clichés. The most radical experimentalist adheres to the most mindless acknowledgments-page formula; the most stinging social critic suddenly becomes Sally Field winning an Oscar.
Acknowledgments typically open with a statement to the effect that, although writing is lonely work, the author could never have completed his book without help and support. “This is my fourteenth novel and I am as dependent as ever on the wisdom of others,” begins one, and another, plucked at random from a Barnes & Noble new-arrival shelf: “The creation of this book has removed any notion I may have had of it being a solo endeavor.”

Then the thanking begins, and the first to be named are very often the author’s agent and editor. Now, I am as mindful as anyone of the pressures on the literary marketplace and the challenges of getting a novel bought and published; and the traditionally invisible work of editors is not only necessary but sometimes no less rigorous than the effort the author went to in composing the manuscript (today, a lot of book editing is done by the agent before the work is shopped to publishers, which is why the author-agent relationship can be so close-knit). It is right and proper to be grateful to the people who worked on your behalf, and if it were done less obtrusively, there would be something sweet about crediting them in the book.
But because the acknowledgments page functions primarily as an extension of the book’s publicity, there is little point in a small gesture. What is far more common is for a novelist to offer his thanks in such a way as to announce the tremendous effort he himself put into revising. One author humblebragged that his first draft was so marked up that he’d had “first-year French essays that came back clearer.” Quelle extraordinaire!

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Elaine Housby said...

I so much agree! I usually wonder how it's even possible for one writer to know so many people. Those acknowledgements pages remind me of phones which claim to store 150 numbers, and make me wonder whether anyone ever needs to phone that many people or whether it's just a way for them to pretend that they do.

Man Martin said...

It seems to me if novelists really want to be commercially competitive with television and film, they should skip the acknowledgements and go straight to commercials and product endorsements. Think how Lolita, for example, would have been enlived by an ad for Viagra, or how Moby Dick would have been improved by a few spots for a Fish'n'Chips restaurant.