Stop Hating on Acknowledgments

Slate's Culture Blog
March 8 2013 1:30 PM

Stop Hating on Acknowledgments

leanin

Yesterday, The New Republic published a delightfully snarky piece by XX Gabfester Noreen Malone about the “current ridiculous state of the ‘Acknowledgments’ section,” which, Malone argued, “has perhaps reached its nadir” in the new book by Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In. She points out that Sandberg’s acknowledgments run a remarkable seven and a half pages, and include such name-dropping groaners as her thanks to Oprah Winfrey for “reminding me of being authentic.”

It all sounds rather dreadful. And fascinating! Why would we wish to be spared this insight into the making of a major book and the mindset of its author? What we see in the bloated “Acknowledgments” of recent books is not always pretty, but it is frequently informative. Malone mentions  the recent book Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J. Dionne, noting that its “lengthy list” helps to highlight “Washington’s much-maligned clubbiness,” as it includes Newt  Gingrich, Barney Frank, and many, many others in between. Malone herself recognizes that Dionne’s acknowledgments, while possibly embarrassing for him, are “actually very useful” for us. But that, I would suggest, is frequently the case.

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For instance: Authors often thank their agents. That may seem like so much uninteresting inside baseball. But what if you want to publish a book yourself? One way to find an agent is to look at the acknowledgments pages of books that are similar to the one you want to write or have written, see which “tireless agent” is almost invariably thanked, and send that person a query.

Such openness might make some people uncomfortable—a 2006 piece highlighted by The Awl this week compares contemporary acknowledgments to reality television—but it helpfully dispels some of the mystery that occasionally surrounds book publishing, especially for those who don’t work in the industry or know a lot of published authors. Malone quotes Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, who says, “You don’t see Joseph Conrad thanking Ford Madox Ford, or Virginia Woolf giving shout-outs to Leonard, Lytton, Vanessa, Clive, and Vita.” But wouldn’t it be great if they had? Who else might those authors have thanked? Perhaps we would have learned something about their lives and their work, who they felt indebted to or beholden to or what have you.

Stein is glad we didn’t. “That kind of thing mars the real intimacy of a novel,” he says, “which is—or should be—between writer and reader and nobody else.” This comment echoes another recent anti-acknowledgments piece, written by Sam Sacks for The New Yorker’s website. “Writers who saw themselves as magi, practitioners of a mysterious art, would never have dreamed of breaking the spell they’d cast by guilelessly stepping out of character to thank their house pets,” Sacks writes. I have some bad news for him: Writers are not actually magi, and magic is deception. Sacks sees writers thank you’s as “commercial rot” that has lamentably “spread inside the book’s covers,” and, like Stein, wishes that authors would shield all this mundane gratitude from our view.

Stein and Sacks are both smart men who have thought a lot about good books, but they sound on this subject like tubercular aesthetes whose delicate constitutions can be knocked sideways by a misplaced wall hanging. Are their experiences with great books really so fragile? I doubt it. And, in any case, I hope not. “Perhaps readers already know that book publishing is an insular, back-scratching industry,” Sacks says, “but does it have to be revealed quite so openly?” Why wouldn’t we want it to be? The real inspiration for a work of literary art may be mysterious, but the process by which that work reaches us should not be. Transparency is good. And so is gratitude.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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