October 4th, 2011

In WHITE PEOPLE, his 1990 collection of stories, Allan Gurganus, whose generous nature can be found everywhere in his beautiful and funny writing, says on the Acknowledgments page at the back of his book, “Thanking people is my favorite vice.” He then names fifteen people whose readings of the book when it was a work-in-progress benefited him. He thanks, too, without naming them, his “former students, and so many other fellow believers.”

By the standards of today, a mere twenty years later, Gurganus’s Acknowledgments page seems rather brief, if not terse. (By “Acknowledgments,” I don’t mean the pro-forma copyright page Acknowledgments in which the author lists, for instance, the magazines where the book’s stories or some pieces of the novel have previously been published; I’m referring only to the non-pro-forma thanks a writer extends to friends, institutions, editors, etc.) I’ve seen Acknowledgments pages in the novels and story collections of contemporary writers that are longer than the mock-epic list of partygoers in THE GREAT GATSBY. Fitzgerald didn’t write Acknowledgments pages. Neither did Faulkner or Hemingway or hardly any other writer of that generation or of the succeeding generation, the one that included Bellow and Updike and Flannery O’Connor and Grace Paley and John Cheever. The Acknowledgments page seems not to have blossomed until the last decade of the twentieth century.

In general, the Acknowledgments written by authors of literary fiction fall into two categories–quite short and not so short. The writers of the quite short Acknowledgments page (or fraction of a page) tend to be the more illustrious among us. They might thank a famous foundation and a famous literary colony and perhaps a couple of illustrious friends or an esteemed book editor and an agent, and be done with it. Sometimes the truly minimalist Acknowledgments will be buried in the fine print of the copyright page, there to be found only by readers who read copyright pages partly for the purpose of seeing if the author has permitted his birth year to be included in the Library of Congress information. (It is rare to find this piece of information, by the way. It is a fact that the great majority of contemporary writers are hardly out of their twenties, even though many have managed to publish six or seven or nineteen books.) And sometimes, of course, the celebrated writer follows in the tradition of Fitzgerald and Bellow and writes no Acknowledgments at all.

I don’t mean to suggest that vanity or self-importance is the motive, or only motive, behind the quite short Acknowledgments. All books of fiction are, after all, written by solitary individuals, who only incidentally receive editorial or financial or moral help from editors and foundations and friends. And the fact that the more celebrated (and commercially successful) writers of literary fiction tend to feel, if their Acknowledgments pages are any evidence, no need to publicly thank any more than a handful of supporters–not usually including Mom or Dad, or a spouse or a coffeehouse pal, or an old school friend who wrote the adulatory email out of the blue, or a high school English teacher who lit a fire under the writer’s sorry ass, or a person who told the writer a pretty good anecdote that got transmuted into fictional gold, or even a shrink–doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer is graceless or not thankful.

Now might be the moment to tell a joke. Q.: Why don’t Southern women like group sex? A.: Too many thank-you notes to write.

One assumption in this joke is that Southern men don’t–or didn’t, back in the day, when people did such things–write thank-you notes. Allan Gurganus, a North Carolinian, suggests that this is inaccurate, and I think he’s right: thank-yous cross gender lines, at least south of the Ohio River. I was raised in the mid-South, and I had to write my Christmas thank-you notes before I could go outdoors and shoot baskets.

But what is it that makes some writers, Southerners and otherwise, want, or feel obliged, to thank so many people?

Though there are exceptions, it seems generally true that the not so short Acknowledgments pages are written by writers making their debuts (writers full of hope, that is, and also, in most cases, full of gratitude at being in print) as well as by so-called seasoned writers whose second or third books are unlikely to make much of a splash. (Writers who don’t make some sort of splash after three books–or is it only two now?–stand little chance of finding a publisher for that fourth one.) This may be saying no more than that we writers who labor at the margins may over-compensate for our tenuous positions in the literary world by filling a page or two of paper with the names of people who have been nice to us.

It may also be true that we writers of the not so short Acknowledgments pages want readers to understand that we are not actually terrible people, even if we are often selfish, glum, standoffish, a little vulture-like when it comes to incorporating the actual world into our fiction, and even if we are also not above some brown-nosing with regard to that magazine editor whom we thank for going out on a limb for our early work.

It may be true, too, that the effusive Acknowledgments page is a way for some of us to promote our humility. Or our good manners.

On the other hand, one should allow for the possibility that there may be no ulterior motive in the not so short Acknowledgments page. It may actually be what it seems to be: a big wet sloppy innocent thanks.

And it may be true as well that since we know that what we have written is, really, only (and not just geologically speaking) ephemera, since we know that it won’t last more than a few years (if that long, in paper form) and that it surely won’t survive us (except as some data in the Googlesphere), we feel an urgency, a necessity, to give thanks to all those who have, in whatever minor way, helped us to make the little disappearing thing called a book.

(A pause here to consider contemporary poets’ Acknowledgments: a cursory inspection of some books of contemporary poetry on my shelves suggests that poets, whose chances of commercial success are close to nil, whose work is highly unlikely to receive any attention from the mainstream reviewing press, tend to be spare when it comes to spreading gratitude around. Of course, it’s also true that poets are, compared with fiction writers, people of few words. One tries to imagine Walt Whitman publishing his poems in 2011. Would his expansiveness have spilled over onto the Acknowledgments page, or would he have decided to save a few trees?)

In the Acknowledgments page to the new edition of my first book, THE GREEN SUIT, I say, not quite facetiously, that, were the University of Wisconsin Press not under budgetary constraints imposed by the right-wing government of the state I live in, I would name every friend or acquaintance who had ever said a kind or encouraging word to me about my writing. I say this even though the book is a reprint (with one new story) and even though I have had two other occasions, in the Algonquin (2000) and Plume (2001) editions, to thank those people who gave me moral or editorial or strategic or financial help during the writing of the book.

Thanking people is a favorite vice of mine, too–not to say a neurosis. And I have every reason to thank those who, over the last three or four years, when my first two books went out of print and when my third did worse in the marketplace than the first two did and when rejections from magazines and grant-givers have arrived at an alarming rate, encouraged me, in one way or another, to go on. The existence of these people, their faith in me, seemed at least one reason for going on. Among them are writing friends, family, childhood friends, college and graduate school friends, teachers from long ago with whom I’ve kept in touch, a few newspaper scribes, a handful of magazine editors, tennis pals, people who work for the University of Wisconsin Press, and some people who have done no more than ask in passing how my writing is going. It gives me pleasure to write their names, and to hope that in their own working lives–in the work itself, that is–they have had or will have as much joy as I have had in doing my work. Some of the people I thank on the Acknowledgments page of the new edition of THE GREEN SUIT I thank again here:

Richard Sacks, Judy Goldman, Allyn Roberts, Betsy Amster, Agate Nesaule, Dale Kushner, Lisa Ruffolo, Ann Shaffer, Lisa Hunter, Jean Feraca, Sarah Gorham, Jeff Skinner, Allen Bush, Rose Cooper Bush, Robert Davenport, Robin Muir, Katy Christopherson, Walter & Catherine Christopherson, Hal Burgiss, Catherine Davidson, Farrell & Karen Smith, Mike Pearce, Maya Page, Mark Dintenfass, the late Bert Goldgar, David McGlynn, Merritt Ringer, Jan Daniels Quinlan, Dana Sachs, Adolf Gundersen, Andy Waclawik, Bozena Waclawik, Andy Mayhall, Sandy & Jim Christensen, Alan Attie, Scott Brandt, Ron Johnson, Jim & Kathryn Leide, Brian Seliger & Jennifer Spence, Roger Goodwin, John & Kathy Wendt, Ron Shaw, Cary Lahr, Gil Jevne, Ben Birkett, Patrick Irwin, Rob Spence, John Hess, Dave Winter, Tom Bround, Peter Pearce, Philip Clark, David Dameron, Alex Gaynor, my wife Michele Gassman, my children George and Nora Allen, my sister Angela Allen, my mother Betty Anne Allen, my nephew Charlie Stanford, my mother-in-law Barbara Gassman, my sister-and-brother-in-law Jolene & Stefan Thoenes, my niece Kira Thoenes, my brother-and-sister-in-law Steve & Suzanne Gassman, my brother-and-sister-in-law Rich & Tina Gassman, my father-in-law Rick Gassman, Willow Harth, Margaret George, Michelle Huneven, Steven Carter, Paul Mandelbaum, Paul Griner, Diana Abu-Jaber, Tom Boyle, Jamie Baldwin, Hunt Helm, Tyler Fairleigh, Connie Brothers, Carolyn Courtney, Julie Ardery, Alex Brown, Becky Shaw, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Ron Kuka, Judith Mitchell, Judy Cooper, Scott Johnson (my dentist, who before looking at my teeth–I still have the original set–always asks me about my writing), Bob Carmany, Linda Endlich, David Thigpen, Jim Jaffe, Char Luchterbrand, Randy Brown, Lyle Schaefer, George Hesselberg, Doug Moe, Dave Daley, Carolyn Kuebler, the late Jeanne Leiby, Michael Koch, Evelyn Somers Rogers, Stephen Corey, Squire Babcock, Geeta Sharma Jensen, Ann Imig, Bernadette Murphy, Dean Bakopoulos, Keith Runyon, Bob Curry, John Galligan, Micaela Sullivan Fowler & Pete Fowler, Jessica Doyle, Michael Schuler, Mark & Lisa Danielson, Sam Atlee, Roberta Gamble, Alison Jones Chaim, Mark Singer, David Green, Liz Macklin, Mary Norris, Peter Canby, Jon Moyer, Elisabeth Scharlatt, Maggie Kingsbury, Nora Robertson, Doug Pearson, Richard Young, Ling Ling Ho, Tom Parrett, Mike Kelsay, Rex Henderson, Marion Beam, Richard Hopkins, Michael Chaim, Sheila Leary, Adam Mehring, Chris Caldwell, Raphael Kadushin, Andrea Christofferson, Fred Lauing, Carla Marolt, Kirt Murray, Bill Christofferson, Patty Lucas, Whitney & Nancy O’Bannon, Anne & Phil Ardery, Sam Miller, Tom Matthews, Nate Olson, Bruce Noble, Peggy Turbin (my daughter’s pre-school teacher), Hal Steinkopf, Char Boland, Heather Lee Schroeder, Jason Smith, Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva, Michael Pietsch, Bob Wake, Eric Freydenlund, C.J. Hribal, Bill Pike, Betsy Wilmerding, Henry Bromell, Melissa Bernstrom, Ann Michalski, Tom Creeron, Michael Thom, Tim & Kimberly Mueller, Bill Coan, Maureen Ellsworth.

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