Good Manners or Good P.R.? Why Writers Say Thank You

This spring, as galleys of fall books piled up in media outlets around town, book reviewers played at one of their favorite sports: reading aloud from unintentionally droll acknowledgments pages. So far, no author has topped Elizabeth Wurtzel’s efforts for Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women , in which the author devotes four entire pages to her gratitude, thanking, for instance, the downstairs neighbor who “understood that I needed to cash a check so I could buy the Gucci horsehair slides that I had been coveting forever right that moment.” But Susan Minot, in her novel, Evening , due out in October from Alfred A. Knopf, is getting high ratings for her dedication-acknowledgment page. So moved were some editors and reviewers, they read aloud from it to their friends over the telephone.

Ms. Minot dedicates her third work of fiction to people-we are not told any names-who gave her places to write. The list reads like a travel brochure, or breathless captions in a travel magazine, viz. “the shack at Shipyard Point, the balcony above the North Haven casino, the green porch in the Wilderness … the couch at Old Oak Farm … the Balinese bed in Nairobi, the green chair above the Mara River, the blue veranda in Waa, the tower at Lake Naivasha” and “the nearly all-red room on Koitobus Road” that gives way to the final “and to Dorothy, for the chipped wicker chair where I sit at Ben’s feet, my unending gratitude.” Quite a performance, and we haven’t even gotten to the narrative.

Endless, verbose acknowledgments, while presented as evidence of the author’s big heart, often betray a not-so-subtle subtext of boasting, as in, Look at the famous people I know! Look at the exotic (and expensive) places I’ve stayed! In an age when biographies of famous writers have become more widely read than the writers’ actual work, it is perhaps not surprising that young writers have fallen prey to the belief that their lives are of deep interest to the readers, and that a lengthy acknowledgments page is a gift to the readers instead of an annoying hindrance. The danger, of course, is that Ms. Minot’s “blue veranda in Waa” may be more intriguing than the 264 pages of fiction that follow. (Ms. Minot was traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Ms. Wurtzel’s protracted declaration notwithstanding, nonfiction books generally can make a good argument for a beefy acknowledgments page, as a sort of compressed version of footnotes; after all, the author has presumably done copious research and there are lots of people to thank. But in the case of novels, short stories and poetry, it would seem that, apart from perhaps a brief dedication to one’s bedmate, the writer should just get on with the story.

“Until 20 or 30 years ago,” said Random House senior literary editor Daniel Menaker, “you didn’t read acknowledgments in literary books because literary books are a matter of voice. But little by little, the margins got nibbled away at. Now, writers are more aware of the advisability of acknowledging the assistance they’ve gotten from friends and professionals. It’s a new sort of diplomacy.”

But while agents and editors and friends may enjoy seeing their names in print, the reader is left feeling on the outside of some in-joke. “Acknowledgments are really the last thing a general reader wants to see or should see,” said Simon & Schuster vice president and publisher David Rosenthal.

“It’s like coming out before the curtain before the beginning of the play,” said Viking senior editor Jonathan Burnham. Mr. Burnham hails from England, where works of fiction get an austere dedication and that’s about it. Gushing strains of touchy-feeliness are reserved for a hand-inscribed copy. But American writers, perhaps taking a cue from the Oscars (Mr. Burnham said he thinks Sally Field might be ground zero), seem to prefer their thanks where everyone can see them.

Naumann: ‘Pain in the Butt’

“I think in a work of fiction, we want to keep the influence of life out of it,” said Cynthia Ozick, whose most recent novel was The Puttermesser Papers . Putting an acknowledgment or extended dedication up front is, according to Ms. Ozick, “giving a bit of autobiography in the wrong place.”

“I find [acknowledgments] a pain in the butt, especially in works of fiction,” said Michael Naumann, the chief executive of Holtzbrinck’s highbrow imprint Henry Holt & Company, who just announced he is heading home to Germany to work in politics. “Sometimes they read like shorthand into the wonderful world of publishing when, in fact, you bought the book to escape from the world of labor. It’s as if you open a car door, and there on the seat is an acknowledgment of all the companies that delivered the screws and nuts and bolts and gaskets and windshield wipers.” In other words, literature is not forged in the smithy of one’s soul, but on the 21st floor of 201 East 50th Street (Knopf) or the 17th floor of 40 West 57th Street (International Creative Management), or in a classroom somewhere beyond the Mississippi.

Some find it all a bit unseemly. “It’s sort of like bringing a check to the wedding,” said author Nicholson Baker. His suggestion: putting the acknowledgment on “a little errata slip that would fall out. Then the book would be independent of it.”

Karen Moline, whose period novel, Belladonna , was published by Warner Books this spring, spends the better part of a back page not enumerating sources, as Michael Ondaatje did in his historically based 1992 novel The English Patient , but thanking some 40-odd “cheerleaders”-among them “Eddi Reader, whose voice really could melt a glacier” and “Harvey Keitel, who taught me about the journey.”

“Writing is such a lonely task,” said Ms. Moline, who was paid $1 million for her book. “And acknowledgments give people a lot of pleasure. They’re so astonished that they’d be acknowledged for being my friend. For people who aren’t writers, seeing their name in print makes them feel real, that they are somehow part of a creative process they don’t understand anything about.” Ms. Moline, a former journalist who’s written about celebrities for Premiere and Tatler , said she saw her work as part of a collaborative process. “I don’t think there’s a writer in the world who doesn’t talk to people and get feedback.”

Just ask Joe Quirk, who wrote his novel The Ultimate Rush with the help of a Bay Area writer’s group. “The best novels are forged in the interplay between writer and audience,” he said. His acknowledgments run almost two pages. “I was the final arbiter, but it was a community that helped sculpt the book,” he said. “People like us who make it up, we get so much information and so many suggestions from others.”

Such remarks leave Rochelle Gurstein, author of The Repeal of Reticence : A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation and Modern Art , cold. “So fiction writers have been brainwashed, too, thinking they’re information gatherers,” she said. “It’s a degraded way of thinking about art, that we’re supposed to reflect rather than shape the imagination. It’s a yuppie approach to art.”

Of course, in the Baroque period, some 300 years back, writers couldn’t afford not to heap thanks on their patrons, who quite literally supported them. Dedication pages in literary works raised the art of sycophancy to new levels. But then the rising middle class gave writers a new market, and so the poet no longer had to cater to the lord’s tastes. The scribbler spent the next 200 years or so holding forth on why rivers made him weepy and, subsequently, how dark was the abyss of his alienation. It was all his own material, spouting up from some freshwater spring of pure inspiration.

But now, on the cusp of the 21st century, contemporary writers are signaling that, at least in America, their age of inspiration is fading to black. Shoehorning acknowledgments into works of fiction, thereby revealing the skeleton of the work, demythologizes the idea of artistic inspiration. While such honesty may have opened an interesting vein of postmodernism, acknowledgments these days, as Ms. Wurtzel makes abundantly clear, can sound like the rehearsal-dinner toast from hell.

Mr. Quirk’s acknowledgments go a step farther toward stamping out the lone genius myth. He begins by thanking five people, and then describes the vision each one had for his protagonist, Chet. Mart Trenor wanted “Chet to be a stuttering sexually deviant professor of biology ninja who is incredibly handsome, brilliant with computers and has a three-foot penis.” Mr. Quirk, like some focus-group graduate, states: “I hope I have managed to land Chet somewhere in the middle of all this.”

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing that writers-as a group a fairly cranky, self-obsessed lot-have learned some manners. Etiquette doyenne Letitia Baldridge declared Ms. Minot’s dedication charming. “You have to give credit to people for having a good heart,” she said. But she pointed out that lengthy dedications run the risk of diluting the message. “It’s one thing to be thrown in with a list of 80 names-and another to get a handwritten note from the author. That is what really pleases people,” she said.

Julian Barnes, who just completed his next novel England, England , thinks it’s proper for nonfiction authors to thank their sources and used acknowledgments in his collection A History of the World in 10 1¼2 Chapters , a work of fiction that relied heavily on facts. “I think the motivation was fear: ‘Just in case you thought I hadn’t properly researched … Lenin’s brains, yes, I have, and I’m thanking …'”

Mr. Barnes hasn’t used acknowledgments since, and is skeptical of their truthfulness. “Acknowledgments are used to boast,” said Mr. Barnes. A biographer once solicited Mr. Barnes’ aid about his subject. Mr. Barnes faxed the author back, saying he had never met the subject nor read any of his books. After the book came out, Mr. Barnes noticed his name in the acknowledgments.

Hey, Bob Dylan: Thanks!

Paul William Roberts, author of forthcoming The Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein , is one of those nonfiction authors taking acknowledgments to new heights. He thanks, in Wurtzelian fashion, a bank manager (for extending him a crucial line of credit) and Lufthansa Airlines, and Bob Dylan. He said he has met Mr. Dylan and is currently involved in a long-distance chess relationship with the folk legend. “There are few opportunities to put on paper your gratitude,” said Mr. Roberts. “This permanently enshrines it for everyone to see. It’s easy to write a note. A note doesn’t go as far.”

And publishing professionals certainly enjoy the attention. As Mr. Rosenthal put it, “Everybody claims not to care, but if someone doesn’t do this, people are pretty pissed off.” There was, once, a Random House editor called Joe Fox who wanted nothing to do with acknowledgments. If pressed, he’d allow authors to use his initials. (Mr. Fox died on the couch in his office.)

“He didn’t need the extra recognition,” recalled Peter Gethers, the editor behind Ballantine’s Library of Contemporary Thought line, and an author himself. “I admire someone who thought doing his job was more than sufficient,” said Mr. Gethers, who nevertheless added, “I’m not as high-minded.”

If Mr. Menaker’s “new diplomacy” has an expert practitioner, it may be himself. The acknowledgments at the end of his recently published novel, The Treatment , read like a roll call of the literary power elite: New York Times Book Review editor (and former New Yorker colleague) Chip McGrath; Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta; Knopf up-and-comer Jordan Pavlin; and I.C.M. power agent Esther Newberg. But that’s his circle. What are you going to do?

“If I could pass a law,” Mr. Menaker sighed, “there would be no acknowledgments and no blurbs ever again.”

You can reach the publishing column at emanus@observer.com.