A Response To Giles Coren

Reading & Writing

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.

14 comments on “A Response To Giles Coren”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    “To Feri n’Gashi. Only a camel, but steel true and great of heart”

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    I express my sincere thanks to my friend and associate John Watson without whose assistance this work would have been finished to a much higher standard in less than half the time.

  3. Jo W says:

    The great Alan Coren’s -The Sanity Inspector, marked- ‘For Giles.’ and his book The Lady from Stalingrad Mansions has a thank you to Punch magazine, for reproducing material.
    Are these the acknowledgements that Giles Coren is writing about??

  4. Helen Martin says:

    No, Jo. The one is a dedication and the other is the legal acknowledgement of the copyright owner. No, he’s commenting on the list (usually) at the back of novels (longer lists, the fluffier the novel) thanking all the editors, the author’s agent, her writing group, the PR staff, the typographers, the bindery people, the cover artist, the man who made coffee, and the friendly librarian. They’re all necessary (especially that last one) but by thanking everyone you thank no one. Thanking the police fingerprint specialist for assistance with a crime novel is only courteous (and gets you more help later) and thanks to someone who provided an idea at a crucial point is gratitude but it’s going too far these days. You’re thanking an agent for doing her job, after all.

  5. Roger says:

    Ever since Les Triplettes de Belleville (I was advised before I saw it) I’ve always sat through all of the credits at the end of a film hoping something as good would turn up as the end of it.
    it hasn’t – yet.

  6. admin says:

    Bloody hell, Roger, now I have to dig the film out!

  7. Roger says:

    It’s a wonderful film and well worth watching more than once anyway, Admin!

  8. Brooke says:

    Les Triplettes de Belleville–yes, great, rich, lush film, animation makes you gasp with wonder. Only other film worth sitting through credits is The Thief and the Cobbler (original version).

  9. Brooke says:

    list at the back of the novel. I’ve started reading “acknowledgements” before I buy, as indication of how bad the writing will be.

  10. snowy says:

    Giles Coren?

    Hmmm… Granny said “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody… ” So moving swiftly on.

    Dedications, [while distinct from acknowledgments], can be rather fun.

    “I dedicate this book to George W. Bush, my Commander-in-Chief, whose impressive career advancement despite remedial language skills inspired me to believe that I was capable of authoring a book.”
    ― Pedram Amini, ‘Fuzzing: Brute Force Vulnerability Discovery’

    “Dedication: My thanks to the people who showed me that opera was stranger than I could imagine. I can best repay their kindness by not mentioning their names here.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Maskerade

    “To my daughter, if you ever date anyone like the men I write, I will kick your *ss up between your ears and you will walk sideways for a month, but I’ll still love you.”
    ― Amelia Hutchins, Playing with Monsters

  11. Ken Mann says:

    Hugh Laurie’s acknowledgement of the firearms experts who helped him with “The Gun Seller” is rather fine.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    My favourite dedication of all time, can be found in the credits of the brilliant movie, ‘The Taking Of Pelham 123’:
    ‘Made with no help whatsoever from the City Of New York Transit Authority’

  13. Jan says:

    Ian is that the original Pelham 123 or the quite reasonable remake (As remakes go) starring Denzil Washington? Not nearly as good as the original but not embarrassingly awful. That’s a gr8 anti Thankyou!

    I think your acknowledgements are ok Mr F – you even acknowledge passing idiots!

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – It’s the original Robert Shaw/Walter Matthau/Martin Balsam version (1974), which has an incredible soundtrack by David Shire: oddly dissonant and ‘stabby’, it was later used as the basis of a dance track by Deadly Avenger, called ‘We Took Pelham’ (2002), although it didn’t use elements of the original music. So well done is it, that if you are familiar with Shire’s original, you wonder if it’s a remix. It isn’t. The original is written to a peculiar time signature.

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