Dedication’s what you need

Down with the gratitude-bloat of authors’ endless lists of acknowledgements

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A few years ago, I reviewed a novel by a debut author which, aside from its other fine qualities, had one which made it stand out like a red rose in a flax field: it carried no dedication, and no acknowledgements. A modern miracle, I noted: he did it all by himself!

That was unusual at the time but now might be a museum piece, a rarity akin to the hotel guest of whom Basil Fawlty said: “A satisfied customer! We should have him stuffed!”

Contra Ezra Pound, who declared that “all dedications are dowdy”, the humble book dedication can be a thing of beauty. It stands alone on the page, prominent and high-value, and it is the first thing the reader sees after the title.

A dedication was once an obligation to a patron; now it is more personal, but just as likely to be used to send a public message. The commonest — and therefore the dullest — is to the writer’s romantic partner. We ignore those, as the romantic partners no doubt do too after a few rounds on the receiving end. (“Another one? Are you hiding something?”)

More interesting are the ones that hint at a story potentially more intriguing than the book itself. Paul Christopher’s 2010 novel The Templar Cross looks like genre swords-and-sandals hokum, but is elevated by its dedication to “John Christopherson, the best family lawyer in Skagit County, Washington”. Perhaps the outcome of Mr Christopherson’s negotiations explain why the author has had to churn out a further seven books in the series since then.

What we like best, in other words, is the dedication which artfully shows the human side of its author. Sometimes it may emphasise what we already know: Jessica Mitford, of the bonkers sisterhood, dedicated her memoir Hons and Rebels “To Constancia Romilly (the Donk)” — only true aristocracy could name her child thus. While Rose Macaulay showed her suffer-no-fools qualities with her 1926 novel Crewe Train: “To the Philistines, the Barbarians, the Unsociable, and those who do not care to take any trouble”.

Sometimes the dedication may reveal the author in a way unintended: Jack Kerouac exhibited delusions of meaning when Visions of Cody was “dedicated to America, wherever that is”, a Banksy-like level of political insight. Yeah Jack! Stick it to The Man!

Elsewhere, a dedication can even give us premonitions: when J.D. Salinger published Franny and Zooey in 1961, we might have guessed from his beautifully fluent dedication that all was not well:

“I urge my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of the New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

By the time his next book appeared, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters/Seymour: An Introduction, the dedication told us he was at the end of his tether with the literary-critical publishing complex:

“If there is an amateur reader left in the world — or anybody who just reads and runs — I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.” Salinger never published another book in his remaining 47 years. The most private of writers had bared his soul in his dedications as few writers do.

Baring your soul, of course, is not the role of the dedication: that’s what its mutant cousin the acknowledgements page is for. Acknowledgements are to dedications what the stuffed-crust hamburger pizza is to the filet mignon. Worst of all, whereas the dedication is forgotten by the reader once the pages start turning, acknowledgements come at the end, magnifying their status and positioning themselves as unignorable postscript.

Where did this logorrhoea of recognition, this gratitude-bloat, come from?

In modern literature — I am talking here of fiction, rather than non-fiction where research will require a cap doffed to the experts — acknowledgements have not only become de rigueur but have swollen and metastasised. A brisk nod to a select few names will no longer do; it is not unusual today to have three or four pages of acknowledgements, thanking 100-plus people. Where did this logorrhoea of recognition, this gratitude-bloat, come from?

It is a measure, perhaps, of our modern emotional incontinence. Acknowledgements are a loving gesture, making a human connection and offering praise where the writer feels it’s due. That is a delightful thing, up to a point. And readers who like acknowledgements really love them: some read them first, and they are, as one commentator put it, “often the only true thing amid a pack of lies”.

But that is one reason why I, as far as acknowledgements are concerned, take the Bartleby-like position: I prefer not to. Acknowledgements are not part of the novel; in fact, they break the spell the author has spent 200 or more pages weaving. We should take a book on its merits, knowing as little about the author as possible. As one reader put it to me, “the end of a book is time for thinking about the book, not for an acceptance speech”. To paraphrase Victoria Wood’s Kitty, how you’re expected to gather your thoughts to the thud of a falling name-drop, I do not know.

Acknowledgements are now so firmly established that they have become part of the publishing process. Advance copies of novels leave a page (or four) blank at the end, headed: “Acknowledgements: to come”. One novelist I spoke to confirmed that he had, as a matter of course, been asked to submit acknowledgements for all of his novels — and had declined. Like me, he thinks that when a page of thank-yous follows the end of the book, “the bubble’s been burst, somehow”.

Acknowledgements are like the present tense in fiction: nowhere to be seen for hundreds of years, and suddenly ubiquitous. I look through my twentieth-century classics, through my 80s and 90s literary fiction paperbacks, and find only the beautiful silence of eternity after the story ends. It does feel that it would have weakened the effect of closing lines such as “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” if they were followed on the next page by a breathless list of Fitz’s drinking buddies.

If restraint was good enough for those writers, why not today’s? One argument goes that it is the exercise merely of decency to acknowledge those who helped you with the book. That is true. But why must this be a public statement?

The American novelist, Ann Patchett, is against acknowledgements because they have, she contends, a performative element. This must be so, particularly when we look at the current trend for elephantiasis of the thankings. Patchett suggests, instead, a discreet personalised thank you, handwritten in a gifted copy of the book.

Anyway, say some, the novelists of old were part of the problem — perpetuating a myth of writer as solitary genius hander-down of tablets of wisdom — and the new approach helps to reset the balance. But I contend the reader recognises very well that the book does not spring from the womb fully-formed, but wants to believe it anyway. Taking the work as complete and perfect, the writer as infallible, is part of the suspension of disbelief. We want to see the great and powerful Oz, and pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

This exemplifies the problem with all the support arguments for acknowledgements — in addition to the above, it’s argued that being recognised can help a junior publishing employee — which is that they have nothing to do with the crucial relationship in a book, between author and reader.

Acknowledgements create a ménage à trois that leaves no one satisfied

Acknowledgements create a ménage à trois (or quatre, or soixante-frigging-huit) that leaves no one satisfied, especially if, having begun the naming game, the author leaves someone out. (This can be the only explanation for the grossest example I’ve seen yet, where an author wrote that the three pages of acknowledgements in the hardback version of their novel were in the process of being extended for the paperback.)

I had better clarify that disdain for acknowledgements is not a form of sour grapes. I appeared in the acknowledgements page of a novel once — a book I had no involvement in — which baffled me. And I once saw my name among the dedicatees in an advance copy of another novel. I politely asked to be removed — and was.

There remain some holdouts in the acknowledgements game. The sort of author who tends not to acknowledge, and sometimes not even to dedicate, can be identified as austere, aloof or distant: J. M. Coetzee; Rachel Cusk; Marilynne Robinson; Jonathan Franzen. They of course have achieved their success, and can afford not to play nice. For the debut author I mentioned at the outset who went commando in the acknowledgements game, I can’t help but notice that he has not published anything since.

Let us close on a happier note, with the perfect dedication; one which sweetly combines recognition and revenge. In her Oxford Book of Oxford, Jan Morris proved herself the expert’s expert at this game. “Dedicated gratefully to the Warden and Fellows of St. Antony’s College, Oxford,” she wrote, “except one.”

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