steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Acknowledgement - a Thing of Darkness?

 In a recent discussion on Child_lit (which, for those who don’t know, it is a listserv devoted to the academic discussion of children’s literature), someone asked about the practice of novelists including Acknowledgements pages in their books, as has long been done for works of non-fiction. When did it come about, she enquired? She also confessed to finding it a bit odd. 

I think it’s an interesting question – albeit one that applies to adult fiction as much as children’s. I too think the sudden ubiquity (or so it seems) of lengthy acknowledgements a bit odd, and I was foolish enough to mention that personally I didn’t much care for it (for reasons I’ll go into below). Though I didn’t expect many people to agree with me, I was surprised to be accused by more than one poster of wanting to ban the things. One person devoutly hoped that I was joking; another found my preference bordering on the risibly bizarre. Altogether there was something defensive about the reaction, as if I was somehow sneering at people who liked Acknowledgements. That was a little upsetting, but interesting too, in retrospect.

So, why don’t I care for Acknowledgements pages? First, note that by Acknowledgements I don’t mean dedications, or explanatory notes such as one often finds appended to historical novels. (I’m often ambivalent about the latter too, but I’ll admit they are at least necessary sometimes.) No, I mean those lists of editors, friends, family and chance acquaintances who may be said to have had a hand in providing inspiration, coffee, good advice, and so on – especially where this is fleshed out to become something like a ‘History of the Making of This Book’ in the manner of a DVD extra.

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? There are two main reasons for my preference, one perhaps more respectable than the other. (And after the Child_lit experience, let me stress that this is just an account of how I react, not a model for others to follow!) The first is that this kind of thing tends 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 need to have my face rubbed in it the minute I’ve read FINIS. I’m aware this is not a universal reaction, and I’ll admit that I don’t mind at all when actors come on at the end of a play to take a bow – but the “Making of this Book” approach can feel 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.

Well, why don’t I just skip the Acknowledgements, you might ask – as several people did ask. 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 reading the book. I’m Modernist enough not to like the idea that some bits 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 was kept to the catalogue or a magazine interview? Or that being told to “just ignore it” didn’t quite answer the case?

The less respectable reason for disliking Acknowledgements is that, in some hands, they 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. One poster on Child_lit suggested that the reason she liked Acknowledgements was because it allowed her a sense of community with the author, but I can’t help feeling that this is a very highly artificial and mediated form of community (these people write fiction, after all!), and isn’t necessarily more authentic than that offered by reading Hello! magazine.

Finally, I still wonder about the original question. When did Acknowledgements pages become widespread in fiction? Are they now in fact de rigeur, so that anyone who doesn’t include them will be seen as a precious and egotistical poser? And does it 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?
Tags: books, maunderings
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