Monday, 11 October 2010

Acknowledgements - Charlie Butler


I know from the experience of having written about Acknowledgements elsewhere that most people who read this post are going to disagree with me. So I’ll say it up front: this is just my personal preference, I’m not judging anyone, and I’m happy to contemplate the possibility that I may even be, yes, wrong. Nevertheless, I can’t help clinging to the feeling that I may also be a bit right.
I don’t much care for Acknowledgements pages in novels.
There, I’ve said it.
If I seem a little nervous, it’s because when I mentioned this in another forum some time ago, I was surprised by the visceral ferocity of the reaction. More than one person accused me of wanting to ban the things (which I certainly don’t). Another devoutly hoped that I was joking. Yet another declared my preference “bizarre”. Altogether there was something defensive about the comments I received, as if I were somehow sneering at people who like Acknowledgements.
It’s easy to forget that Acknowledgements pages haven’t always been around, so quickly have they become entrenched. In the old days – by which I mean 15 years ago – novels generally appeared with an author’s name, maybe a dedication, and possibly (if it was a historical, say), a technical note explaining what liberties had been taken with history or geography. By contrast, the full-blown Acknowledgements page will detail all the editors, friends, family and chance acquaintances who may have had a hand in providing inspiration, coffee, good advice, and so on. Often the page will be fleshed out into something like a mini-essay on “The Making of This Book”, in the manner of a DVD extra, replete with reminiscences about the people and incidents that contributed to its writing.
So, why don’t I care for Acknowledgements pages? What could be my problem with such a generous-spirited recognition of the undisputed fact that, with any book, the material doesn't originate entirely within the writer's own head? Why shouldn’t the beta readers and editors and long-suffering spouses have their moment in the sun? There are two main reasons for my preference, one perhaps more respectable than the other. (And let me repeat that this is just an account of how I react, not a model for others to follow.)
The less respectable reason – to get it out of the way – is that, in some hands, Acknowledgements can feel a bit breathless and Oscar-speech-ish. Or they can become a rather cloying round of log-rolling and mutual admiration between members of tight literary coteries. But this doesn’t apply to all, or even most, of them. Most are heartfelt and gracious.
The (arguably) more respectable reason is that Acknowledgements tend to throw me out of the fictional world by reminding me that it’s all made up. Of course I do know this anyway, but I don’t like to be reminded of it the minute I’ve read FINIS. I’m aware that this is not an entirely consistent reaction. I don’t mind at all when actors come on at the end of a play to take a bow, for example – but the “Making of this Book” approach feels more like a magician explaining how the trick he’s just performed was done. As a matter of fact I’d be very interested to know how it was done – just as I’m very interested to know how books are written – but I don’t feel the book itself is the place to do it.

In that case, why don’t I just skip the Acknowledgements altogether? Of course, I’m far too nosy to do so (and I’d certainly stay to hear the magician’s explanation). Also, I feel that if something’s designed by the author to sit in the book, it’s because the author feels that reading it will enhance rather than detract from the experience of that book. I don’t like the idea that some parts of a book are optional extras. As a parallel, imagine that it became standard practice for artists to put up a page of Acknowledgements next to their paintings, explaining how they came by the idea for the picture, where they buy their brushes, how their partner encouraged and criticized them, what other painters they admire, etc. All very interesting: all entirely distracting. And imagine that this page was considered part of the painting, to the extent that wherever the painting was to be displayed the Acknowledgements would be displayed too. Would it really be so bizarre to say that, personally, I’d rather that kind of information, fascinating as it is, was kept to the catalogue or a magazine interview? Or that being told to “just ignore it” didn’t quite answer the case?
Finally, I wonder why Acknowledgements pages have become so widespread in fiction? Are they now in fact de rigeur, so that anyone who doesn’t include them will be seen as an egotistical ingrate? And does this mark some kind of epistemic shift, whereby authors are no longer seen as individual artists (in the way that painters and composers still are) but simply as one player in a collaborative art form, more on the lines of a movie scriptwriter? If so, how did that happen?

10 comments:

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Very interesting post and debate. I am credited in a few books' acknowledgements pages, which is of course very nice, but also scary - because it worries me that if I become published, how on earth will I choose who to acknowledge or not acknowledge, and where to start? It's a bit like choosing who to invite to your wedding. And also, and this is where I agree with you a little, Charlie, most of these acknowledgements are at the beginning of novels, rather than at the end - a decision by publishers which I'm not keen on, and which can spoil the magic of a story. I don't mind reading acknowledgements, but I would far prefer to read them at the end rather than at the beginning. Which brings us to another terrifying question, that of the dedication, and whether a first novel should be one's parents, et cetera...

Charlie Butler said...

Oh, putting them at the front really is anathema! That's like saying whodunnit on the sleeve of a detective novel, or using a shot from an endoscope as your profile picture on a dating site, or something...

Dedications - yes. Definitely tricky. Maybe someone should devote a post to them?

hilary said...

But surely they are not designed to for the general public to read (all those long paragraphs? (and brackets?) I have always assumed they were there for the benefit of the tax office. i.e. to prove that the expenses the author is claiming for are real ("Thanks most of all to my lovely multitalented typist Barbara-in-the-Bahamas, loved the yacht and all the friendly crew").

Charlie Butler said...

Ah, Barbara-in-the-Bahamas - she really is a treasure, isn't she? Takes me back to the heady days of 2005, when I was researching "Piña Coladas - My Way". And they say writing's "not a real job"!

hilary said...

Probably it was ever thus Charlie ('In fair Verona, where we lay our scene...' Elizabethan tax inspector keels over, all WS's relations say 'Very entertaining but what about the gloves?'). So no good moaning and keep up the research: bound to come in useful one day.

Another good use for acknowledgements which I thought of five minutes ago while cleaning the shower (Where oh where is lovely Mildred the housekeeper-and-the-only-person-in-the-world-who-can-read-my-handwriting-I-won't type-don't-ask-me) is that you could add clip art and put them in Christmas cards.

adele said...

Sometimes the acknowledgements are more fun than the books they're attached to! I particularly love those long, soupy ones which are like Oscar speeches and I always read them completely detached from the novel, if you know what I mean. And I read them first and as far as I know don't have my fun spoiled. Am I alone in this weird taste? I don't write fulsome acknowledgments but I have had a para in the front (sorry, Charlie!) of a couple of novels and a small para at the end of a couple of others. Anyone else going to confess?

bookwitch said...

I'd have agreed with you, Charlie, had I not been so very pleased when I myself ended up on a page like that.

Katherine Langrish said...

And there you go. People do like to see their names inside a book. years ago in a former existence as an Information Officer for Lloyd's Register of Shipping,even I was pleased to turn up in the acknowledgements for one of the dullest possible kinds of publication: the history of a shipping line. So if people have helped me in the course of a book, it's a nice way to say thankyou. However, I do understand where you're coming from. One can overdo it!

Charlie Butler said...

I totally understand that it's fun to be mentioned in one of these things. And I know I must sound like the evil love-child of the Grinch and a Blue Meanie, but as Christopher Chant memorably says, "I'm nice really!" My preferences are mine alone, and I'm certainly not out to proselytize. (I still think I'm right, though!)

karen ball said...

A hugely intelligent and thought-provoking post. I'm one of life's eternal optimists. I've been hearing about the death of publishing ever since I began working in publishing. I love your thoughts about school visits. Children really are the most appreciative audiences.