Monday, 30 December 2013
‘I would like to thank . . .’
One does – doesn’t one? – say thank you. One has been well brought up. After Christmas, especially. (The speed at which my brother and I, when small, tore open wrapping paper was restricted only by my mother’s handwriting of the tally: Uncle Bill, Airfix model; Aunty Nesta, book token; Cousin John, fountain pen. And on Boxing Day or the day after, the writing of thank-you letters – short, formulaic [see above], but they may actually have been my first written compositions.) Especially, too, when one wins an Oscar or publishes a book.
The acknowledgements pages of a book can be odd and revealing things. They include, first, persons or organisations the author is obliged to thank: publishers or literary estates that have given permission for previously published material to be quoted, or funding bodies that have given grants. Poetry books and story collections usually list the magazines in which individual poems or stories included in the present book have been previously printed, but I doubt these lists (which can go on and on, and even more so in US books, which often also list the titles of the particular poems which appeared in each magazine) are strictly necessary (who cares?) – they are etiquette, and also a form of advertising: look, I’ve had a poem in the TLS, you should take me seriously. They are lists of little badges.
And then – rarely for poetry but sometimes for fiction and almost always for non-fiction – the personal acknowledgements to people who have read and commented on early drafts, provided letters of introduction, etc. (If it’s a long book, the words ‘the late’ occasionally appear before names.) There’s room here for some flavour, some spice: in a CBe book published last year, X is thanked ‘for editing out most of my favourite parts in the Introduction’, and Y ‘for explaining when ladies are women’. Also, because the ways in which books get written change over time, a book can often be dated to a rough decade by its personal acknowledgements. Some novelists now thank workshop groups or writing circles and name their members. A decade or so ago, a conspicuous number of male non-fiction writers appeared unable to perform such mundane tasks as filing their research notes, compiling a basic index or even typing up their own manuscripts: others, usually women (and often wives, presumably unpaid), were thanked for undertaking these chores. (A number of these writers, I suspect, also didn’t cook, drive or do the shopping. They were writers.)
Agents and editors are often thanked, and I’m not sure about this. When I worked as a desk editor at Faber and an author included my name in their draft acknowledgements I’d usually delete it – it’s my job, I explained, and I get paid for this; save your thanks for the people who have given time or expertise freely, without expecting reward. Sometimes, this was a way of keeping my name out of a book that I didn’t in fact like and didn’t want to be publicly associated with. But generally I’d hold to that. Besides, if agent and editor, why not everyone else involved in the making of the book? – post-room staff, receptionist, office cleaners … So that you’d end up with something like the rolling list of credits at the end of a film (gaffer, grip, best boy). (There is, by the way, a nice credit at the end of My Own Private Idaho: ‘Additional dialogue: William Shakespeare’.) Best keep it short: the longer the acknowledgements go on, the more self-congratulatory they come to seem.
I apologise to anyone I’ve left out. Any errors are entirely my own responsibility. The socks were just what I’ve always wanted.