Jonathan Black wrote a piece in the American Spectator about the Acknowledgements page (or pages) in novels, declaring that “The Acknowledgments page cannot make a bad book better, but it can ruin a good one.”
How utterly ridiculous.
First off, if Black truly believes that an Acknowledgements page can ruin a good book, why would he ever read one? It’s not like the acknowledgements are essential to the story. Just skip the page or two and preserve the sanctity and potential greatness of the book.
But my problem with the piece is that it is built upon cliché, myth and otherwise ludicrous assumptions. To Black’s credit, he refrains from expressing such stodgy, overly-analytical, psycho-babble notions, but he manages to find people to speak these silly aphorisms for him.
Like Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly:
"It used to be a writer spent 20 years alone in a room and came out with an ink-stained manuscript and made a deal with Bennett Cerf. Now it's publishing by committee. Everything's sales and marketing and publicity."
Oh, c’mon, Ms. Nelson. Are we really going to continue to perpetuate the image of the lonely, tortured writer, laboring away for decades under a single, 40-watt bulb in order to produce a single masterpiece? My first book took two years to write and I thought that was quite a stretch of time. Writers profoundly better than I have done even better.
Edith Wharton, in the most productive period of her life, published The Valley of Decision in 1902, Sanctuary in 1903, House of Mirth in 1905 and Madame de Treymes and The Fruit of the Tree in 1907. No twenty year old ink-stained manuscripts for her.
Or how about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who published This Side of Paradise in1920, The Beautiful and Damned in 1922, and The Great Gatsby in 1925? Are we to criticize Fitzgerald for failing to spend the prescribed twenty years alone in a room?
And even if this image of the writer were once the case, Ms. Nelson, is there anything wrong with a writer producing a novel in less than twenty years, and (God forbid) with the help of others? Am I expected to believe that Dickens didn’t receive at least a few comments from friends and colleagues as Great Expectations was being serialized in All the Year Round? Or that Wharton didn’t pass on her manuscripts to friends such as Henry James, Sinclair Lewis or Jean Cocteau at least once in her life? Does the input, support and encouragement of friends, family or fellow writers somehow corrupt or otherwise invalidate the writing process?
Or how about the quote from Dan Menaker:
"Writing fiction is such a self-important business. It's not like you know a lot about elevators and someone suggested you write a book. You write a novel unbidden, because you believe people ought to know how you see things. Acknowledgments are an attempt to disavow that narcissism. They're a pose to mask egomania."
If Menaker is speaking about himself, that would be fine, but to offer up this generality about the thousands of writers who pen acknowledgements each year is just silly. While I may possess a streak of narcissism, and perhaps even a dash of egomania, I make no attempt to disavow these qualities. There are people who may find these qualities offensive, but they have helped me to stand in the face of the harshest of criticism and outright lies and continue to smile.
And there are also days when I fear that I am a complete fraud, a fortunate scribbler who managed to fool an entire publishing house into buying my book but will likely never do so again. To imply that writers are all one thing and none of another is nonsense. Menaker’s quote may be clever and well-phrased, but it is also overly convenient for Black’s piece while not accurately measuring the essence of every writer, or dare I say most writers. Narcissism or not, the acknowledgements in my book are not meant to mask my belief that I have important things to say. They are simply expressions of gratitude and a willingness to recognize that even someone with important things to say sometimes needs to the support of others in order to make people listen.
But my greatest complaint about the piece is Black’s sarcastic snipe at the author who acknowledges his or her spouse. Perhaps Black is not married and does not understand the value of a spouse who supports your work. Perhaps he is married but does not enjoy the same kind of partnership that my wife and I share. Perhaps he is one of those writers who prefers to toil away in solitude for decades before emerging with a completed manuscript. Perhaps his wife is invaluable to the writing process but does not desire any “syrupy praise.” But mocking the importance of some spouses, and my wife in particular, in the writing process for the sake of a laugh or a spat of highbrowed sarcasm, seems cheap and simpleminded.
How does one presume to understand the extent of a marital relationship?
In the interest of full discloser, I dedicated SOMETHING MISSING to my wife and acknowledged her in the Acknowledgements, which ran two pages and I will post under Other Writing. But I did not do so in hopes of currying favor with her or because she was “toting laundry and hunting for typos.” I thanked my wife because she deserved it. The story was better because of the questions she asked, the comments she made, and the encouragement that she offered.
To be honest, I did most of the laundry in our home until my daughter was born.
Black asks the question: Isn't writing supposed to be a grim and lonely pursuit?
This is perhaps the most ridiculous comment of the entire piece, but still, I will attempt to answer it. In the movies, yes, it seems that writers are a lonely and grim bunch. In books it’s much the same. Writers are tortured and suffering souls. But in real life, writers are human beings, surprisingly capable of a wide range of emotions. There are lonely days and grim days but there are also days when the words seem to be leaping from your fingers, and these are days of sheer delight. Perhaps it’s true that Acknowledgement pages have grown unnecessarily long in recent years, and perhaps some of these acknowledgements ring of corniness and insincerity, but this has nothing to do with the stereotypes and clichés that litter Black’s piece.
Writers are not lonely, grim, ink-stained scribblers. At least not all of us. Some of us appreciate a kind word, a sharp critique, or the suggestion of a title from a friend or family member. We understand the value of these people in our writing lives and wish to express as much.
We’re not writing these acknowledgements for you, Mr. Black. We are writing to the people who have made are stories better.