A Response To Giles Coren
Last week the TV presenter and feature writer Giles Coren wrote a column in the Sunday Times complaining about the awful pretentiousness of authors who thank others in their acknowledgments.
Now, Mr Coren is a highly personable, light-hearted writer who takes after his genial father Alan, whom I’d seen and heard many times as an after-dinner speaker. Occasionally (and I suspect it’s when he is being most honest) he is devastatingly funny. And it’s clear that as his summer holiday came to a close and he realised he had yet to deliver next week’s column, something had to be knocked up fast. So, picking up the paperback beside his lounger, he turned to the back and lo, discovered something to rail against in his light-hearted, fitfully amusing way.
Mr Coren is no dunderhead. He knows there’s a long tradition of respecting those who have help inspire a book or bring it to fruition, from friends who’ve been forced to listen to the author’s poorly articulated ideas to the editor who has pointed out that magnolias don’t bloom in October. It’s a nice soft target, and while excoriating it Mr Coren can’t resist a few pastiche versions of acknowledgements. Of course, if he’d had a decent editor to thank at this point, he might have decided to excise them.
He argues, not without reason, that 1984 didn’t need an acknowledgements page, but he grinds the joke into the ground with more examples (Stephen Sondheim suggested that writers should never turn out lists because once the joke is established everything else is repetition). He does have a good suggestion, which is before buying a book you might check the acknowledgements first and return it to the shelf if the author comes over as a dick.
But in straining for amusement he doesn’t quite get the point; acknowledgements aren’t there for the reader. They function like movie credits. Audiences only started paying attention to the credits of mainstream films around the time that Stephen Spielberg’s career took off, and now that directors are once more just for hire, and largely the slaves of SFX teams, no-one notices them again. Books are different.
Acknowledgements publicly thank the people who rarely get the recognition they deserve. Any author who thinks that PR girls are useless has never had a great one. Good editors know when to take a book away from an author, and how to get a good book out of them. Proof readers can completely change the way you think about your writing (read ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ on that subject). A book may be rewritten because of a passing remark from a friend.
So this is just a friendly reminder that often the acknowledgments have a real purpose.