I mentioned in my BBC post below that I had a chance to debate (briefly) Ian Jack on the length of my acknowledgements in WE'RE IN TROUBLE. And it's true: I have four pages of acknowledgements. This is unusual in the world of literary fiction, which I knew when I wrote the list. But apart from a couple of snarky comments in otherwise positive reviews of the book, the list itself didn't get much comment, upon the book's release.
Then, prior to the announcement of the GRANTA Best Young American Novelists list, Ian Jack wrote an introduction to an issue of GRANTA in which he spent two and a half of his own pages questioning the wisdom of my four pages. He kept me anonymous, since the context of the introduction was that Ian was reading contenders for the final BOYAN2 list. But I'd seen the intro already, and was torn between excitement (I'm under consideration!) and annoyance (someone else is making fun of MFA programs, yee-ha). Then, last month, part of Ian's introduction was reprinted in HARPER's. That Ian Jack, he gets around.
I want to stress that Ian and I have spoken about this, and Ian insists his questioning has all been done in the spirit of fun and banter--as was our radio appearance. And I do believe it's true. But all the same, I find myself in the position, now, of having to defend my acknowledgements.
Let me see if I can sum up Ian's objections:
1) Long acknowledgements devalue a literary work, calling into question the originality of the writing (especially if many of the people thanked are one's valued classmates in an MFA program).
2) Maybe long acknowledgements are in fact a sign of the author's ego--only a writer convinced of the magnificence of his prose would thank so very many people for making such a glorious thing possible.
3) He doesn't understand MFA programs and what they do.
I can't argue point number two--I have an ego, but I don't believe I have THAT much of an ego; then again, can one really judge one's own ego? I'll leave that for anonymous posters from Georgia to decide. But as for the rest--
I really don't want to discount Ian's points. He has a right to his opinions, certainly, and also he has a critic's right to make whatever he wishes of the material released between the covers of any book. Once I write something and release it into the world, I cease to have control over it. So be it; if I can accept that fact about my fiction, then I also have to accept it about ancillary material.
But I can say I had none of this in mind when I wrote my acknowledgements. I composed my book during a particularly dark time in my life; in 1999 I lost my first wife, Joellen Thomas (to whom the book is dedicated) to cancer, and I wrote all of WE'RE IN TROUBLE in the years thereafter. In order to do that I went back to school--I attended Ohio State's very fine MFA program from 2001-2004. Prior to Joellen's death it's fair to say my life was difficult, in particular my childhood. I don't say all this to beg for sympathy--I truly don't. Rather I want to offer it as context; I can look back over my past and see any number of times when I needed the help of others in order to keep moving forward, to maintain my ambitions, to put words on the page. I think it's fair to say I could not have gotten where I am now without the support and kindness of lots and lots of people.
I'm also bothered, as so many others are, by the general disdain in American society for people who pursue intellectual or artistic goals. Writers aren't valued here they way they are in, for instance, France. Much of my time as an adult, writing, has been spent justifying myself to people, or hearing dire stories about how so few "make it," and how it's, say, financially irresponsible to pursue the path I was pursuing.
So when I learned that my book was going to be published, I felt I owed a debt to those who encouraged me along the way. I also thought that, publishing being what it is, I might never have another opportunity to thank the people who helped me along--one book is no guarantee of another. I also thought I might poke at the notion that writers do what they do alone--I don't feel as though I'm the lonely, tortured, friendless novelist working under a single harsh light in his garret. And yes, I wanted to acknowledge the help I got at both graduate writing programs I've attended--Ohio State's, and also the M.A. program at Miami of Ohio, where I both learned a lot and met Joellen.
So, yeah, the acknowledgements got excessive. I really didn't have to thank the coffee shops where I did a lot of my writing. But after a while making that list of names got to be fun. Why NOT thank Anton at Cafe Apropos? He thought it was great I was working on my book in his shop, and chatted with me about it all the time. Why NOT thank the teachers in high school who could have dissuaded me from writing my dumb fantasy novels? Denise Beck, I salute you! Why not? A dream of mine, an unlikely one, had come true. Why not say thanks to the people who didn't shake their heads and call me crazy, while I was having it? At the end I called it what it was--the first line of the acknowledgements asks readers to forgive me an "indulgence." I figured (and not, I think, unreasonably) that someone not in the mood could simply not read the names.
So that's all I thought I was doing. In a later post I'll write about MFA programs, and the bad (and infuriating) rap they get.
In the meantime I'll let you know that I plan to acknowledge Ian Jack in my next book...