Among the Intellectualoids

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The Acknowledgments page cannot make a bad book better, but it can ruin a good one.

By From the February 2009 issue

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You may think scanning the Acknowledgments page first is like reading the weddings in the New York Times Sunday Styles section before hitting the news. I beg to differ. The Acknowledgments page cannot make a bad book better, but it can ruin a good one.

Did I say "page"? Section is more like it. Names upon names. Artists' colonies. Intrepid editors. Copy editors. Mentors. Foundations. Librarians. The upstairs neighbor. Research assistants. Personal assistants. People who read drafts. The mom who sparked the great endeavor. The dad who would have been proud. The agent, brilliant and prescient, as well as the best friend any writer could have. Speaking of friends…who are all these people? How many drafts did the author circulate? Isn't writing supposed to be a grim and lonely pursuit? 

And finally—drum roll, please—the spouse. Longsuffering, dreams of medical school up in smoke. These husbands and wives are saints! In a writer's darkest hour, when the black dog descends, they're toting laundry and hunting for typos. Never will they cry, "Harold, for God's sake, another year? What about the landscaping? What about Maudie's tuition?" Not all spouses, it need be noted, survive the second or third printing, let alone the paperback version. The dedication to "my fantastic wife and children" morphs into "For my family." The soul mates and life companions move on, optimistically to other writers, to be crowned again with syrupy praise.

"Writing this book has been wonderful," goes one plaudit, "but building a life with you is a greater joy and accomplishment by far." Wince not. Acknowledgments are relentlessly upbeat, though occasionally an elbow nudge slips in. Here's a nod to the editor of Jonathan Lopez's just-published book on the Vermeer forger. "Indeed, I believe I have learned more about writing from Andrea than I learned at Harvard—about anything."

A sly dig at Harvard, even as the author name-drops his alma mater? But don't count on catching Lopez at Crimson reunions, especially after that "about anything" dangler. Where was the editor? But the A-page is immune to editing. Anything short of outright libel rarely sees the blue pencil. Writers who might shun the larded list of Facebook friends have no hesitation flaunting a phone book of helpers. An author friend—I'll never divulge his name, not if I expect to be acknowledged in his next book—ran five pages of Acknowledgments. James Frey, humorously perhaps, compacted his most recent Acknowledgments to a single page—but crammed in 163 names. Emily Giffin, author of Love the One You're With, named 23 people at her publisher, St. Martin's, presumably the backroom team that landed her books on bestseller lists.

"It used to be a writer spent 20 years alone in a room," says Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, "and came out with an ink-stained manuscript and made a deal with Bennett Cerf. Now it's publishing by committee. Everything's sales and marketing and publicity." 

Count the author rare who shuns the mechanics of marketing. Nelson, whose own book, So Many Books, So Little Time, included a wry chapter on Acknowledgments, herself penned two busy pages. "There are writers and reviewers and critics," she says philosophically. "You've got to head them off at the pass."

Both Frey's and Giffin's books are fiction (or so says Frey), but novelists need friends, too, or at least a nice setting in which to plant their laptop. Susan Minot set a new standard for working the houseguest circuit, infamously noting every chair and table at which she composed Evenings, from the "Balinese bed in Nairobi" to "the couch at Fair Oaks Farm." For fellow writers suffering from Schadenfreude, this catalogue of gratitude can be especially galling. Bad enough this person actually got her book published—apparently half the universe was out there bucking for her, offering villas, 24/7 pet-sitting, endless stays at bucolic artists' colonies, tireless readings of drafts. 

"If you constantly whine and bore people long enough," says Gioia Diliberto, a Chicago writer and author of The Collection, "you owe them something."

IT IS NOT ENTIRELY CLEAR WHEN A DEDICATION—to the Queen of England, say—morphed into a forum for flagging second-grade teachers and expired mentors. (Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, names five "who passed away" while Klein wrote, from Susan Sontag to Molly Ivins.) Nonfiction authors started the practice soon after 1900, followed mid-century or so by novelists, even as thanks remained a trickle. Hemingway said simply, "This book is for Hadley" (later, "This book is for Martha Gellhorn").

The recent splurge in gratitude owes much of its momentum to the new ethos of sharing, which has leaked from the self-help movement and creative bibles such as The Artist's Way into the communality of Oprah and Starbucks. Readers join book groups and writers meet weekly in lofts for solace and feedback. "Everyone reads everyone else's work now," says Dan Menaker, the former New Yorker fiction editor and recently retired editor-in-chief of Random House. "Writers have become a guild." 

Menaker, a self-confessed "convicted criminal" of the Acknowledgment racket—he penned a few lines in each of his three books, which he shyly defends—roots the urge to thank deep in the psyche, especially for novelists. 

"Writing fiction is such a self-important business," he says. "It's not like you know a lot about elevators and someone suggested you write a book. You write a novel unbidden, because you believe people ought to know how you see things. Acknowledgments are an attempt to disavow that narcissism. They're a pose to mask egomania."

But egomania will out. Being acknowledged, you should understand, requires an acknowledgment in return. In the one book I wrote, I thanked half a dozen people and—to be candid—was somewhat irked when not one had the courtesy to pick up the phone. An author pal where I live acknowledged my wife, a supportive friend, and sounded mildly peeved that my wife hadn't "thanked me for thanking her." However offhand the A-page, writers expect you to read it, and may go to considerable lengths to give it a witty or original spin, often with a coded Personal such as Elissa Schappell's tribute in Use Me to "Rob Spillman, the last man standing at the weenie roast when it started to snow." In Everything You Know, Acknowl edgment vet Zoë Heller breaks out of the box with "a debt of gratitude to Roger Thornham, who was no help whatsoever in the writing of this book, but was—and is—invaluable to me in every other way."

Such cryptic winks are often a clue to off-the-book relationships, another reason to read the Acknowledgments first. Be forewarned, however, that any thankee may have slipped in uninvited. "Writers bring me their personal problems," grouses Menaker, a reluctant arbiter of Acknowledgment etiquette. "'If I thank Ted I have to thank Alice—but I don't like Alice.' I tell them it's like a wedding. You've got to invite everyone." 

IF YOU ARE A ROOKIE A-PAGER, here are a few rules of thumb: Keep outright groveling to a minimum. Ditto nods to the dead. Skip the proffered thanks to the editor-in-chief of your publishing house; she won't read it. If you are an orphaned writer (and still got your book published), omit reference to your editor, unless you know the circumstances of his departure. Never acknowledge a lawyer. When thanking Amanda Urban, it's inappropriate to include the modifier "super agent," and never put "Binky" in quotes.

If you are a citizen non-writer who expected to be acknowledged but wasn't, start your next campaign now. Offer your writer friend your summer house. Bring over fresh-baked cookies. Research the subject matter of his book and e-mail links. Leave lipsticked messages of encouragement on her mirror after you've walked her dog. Never use the word "deadline" in a sentence. 

It's possible to get excessively riled about Acknowledgments, with their false humility, gushy spousal odes, and numbing lists. Joseph Epstein, essayist and former editor of the American Scholar, takes a more mature view. "Acknowledgments are the literary equivalent of tipping," says Epstein, "but with Monopoly money." Thanks, Joe. 

Jonathan Black, a former managing editor of Playboy, is the author of Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz (Bloomsbury).

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About the Author

Jonathan Black, a former managing editor of Playboy, is the author of Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz (Bloomsbury).