Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 10th, 2011

The art of acknowledgments

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Now that the copy edit for The Icon Thief is finally done, I can turn my attention to a somewhat easier, theoretically more entertaining project—the acknowledgments section, which I’m scheduled to deliver by the end of next week. Like most writers, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time: as a chance to thank loved ones, mentors, associates, and frenemies, it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to an Oscar speech. Yet it’s impossible to approach this sort of task without feeling somewhat self-conscious about it, to the point where I almost want to skip the whole thing. (This is part of the reason why my novel won’t bear a dedication, even though there are many people in my life who emphatically deserve it.)

The big question, of course, is why novelists bother with acknowledgments in the first place. As John Mullan points out in The Guardian, the acknowledgments section of a novel is a fairly recent innovation: we don’t see them at all in the nineteenth century, which was more prone to elaborate dedications, and they don’t seem to have become common in mainstream fiction until the last fifty years or so. Personally, I have a feeling that the increasing frequency—and length—of author acknowledgments is a result of the rise of MFA culture, in which such thank-yous become a way of repaying obligations, currying favor, and, I suspect, settling scores. (Many people I know, including me, turn to a novel’s acknowledgments section first, as if checking a gossip column for boldfaced names.) But that’s neither here nor there.

My own preference for acknowledgments, as in nearly everything else, runs toward concision. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I always cringe a little when I see an acknowledgments section that runs for longer than a page. This applies only to fiction, mind you: it’s perfectly legitimate for a nonfiction writer to thank all of his or her sources, and such lists often contain invaluable information. And I’m fine with novelists who take the time to include bibliographies (although not everyone is). All too often, though, an author’s acknowledgments, especially in first novels, seem to stretch out forever, like a senior will. Part of me even thinks, unkindly, that there might be an inverse relationship between the length of an acknowledgments section and the quality of a debut novel, although I have only anecdotal evidence for this. I’m not going to name any names, but you know who you are.

But I’m probably not being fair. Like everything else in a novel, an acknowledgments section is an expression of the writer’s personality, and there’s occasionally a place for lengthy lists of thank-yous. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, while a flawed novel in other respects, concludes with an exuberant list of the author’s influences, from Tom Swift to Steve McQueen. And although Michael Chabon’s generous acknowledgments for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay run more than two full pages, I wouldn’t change a word. Chabon, not incidentally, is also an eloquent defender of acknowledgments in general. In a letter to the New York Times, he writes:

If there is some kind of old-fashioned virtue in concealing one’s debt to and gratitude for the hard work of others, it’s difficult for me to see where it lies. The comparison to an Oscar speech is easy but bogus; it’s much more like an invocation, a quick prayer of thanks offered up to your ancestors before you paddle your canoe over the falls.

Which is a nice image, even if many acknowledgments seem less like a prayer than an entire church service, including petitions to all the saints. (If you’re curious about what my own acknowledgments will be, well, you’ll just have to buy the book. Although many of my real obligations are already listed here.)

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2011 at 8:25 am

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Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2011 at 7:31 am

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