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The Novelists’ Acknowledgments

Joyce ended Ulysses with a flourish:

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914–1921

And for a good long while, the appended dateline became a fashion in the English-language novel. It may have served Joyce’s thematic purposes, as Edmund Wilson claimed, but for most of Joyce’s imitators, it was little more than a way to fuss over their book, unwilling to let it go without a seal or private notation of some kind.

Today the fashion is for Acknowledgments. Although historical novelists like James Michener and Leon Uris included Acknowledgments to admit to their sources (and to thank the staffs of research facilities, where necessary), the current fashion is for something different. The long and winding Acknowledgments, which express gratitude for financial support before thudding softly into a long list of friends who deserve to see their names in print for one reason or another, seem to date from the late Eighties. The earliest example I’ve been able to find — I hope other readers can find earlier examples — is in Richard Russo’s 1988 novel The Risk Pool:

The author gratefully acknowledges support from Southern Connecticut State University and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, while he was working on this book. Special thanks also, for faith and assistance, to Nat Sobel, David Rosenthal, Gary Fisketjon, Greg Gottung, Jean Findlay and, always, my wife Barbara.

Although Russo does not designate the means of support he received from the two universities (besides salary, I mean), his first line is revealing. When an academic scholar receives a grant or paid leave of absence, he is required by the terms of his acceptance to acknowledge the source of his assistance. The current fashion for Acknowledgments, in other words, is a painful side effect of the university writers workshops, which provide a livelihood for most “literary” novelists now working.

In the New Yorker last month, Sam Sacks derided the current fashion. An earlier generation would never have consented to including such a thing:

Writers who saw themselves as magi, practitioners of a mysterious art, would never have dreamed of breaking the spell they’d cast by guilelessly stepping out of character to thank their house pets. . . . But there can be little mystique in a craft that is now taught in classrooms in every polytechnic university in the country. Novelists seem largely to have accepted the financially useful frame of mind that their books are products foremost, shaped by many hands and market-tested by many professionals.

Indeed, the fashion belongs to the boomer generation, the first literary generation to be wholly supported by academic appointments. But there is an important difference between Acknowledgments in a scholarly monograph and the self-congratulatory foofaraw of the novelists’ Acknowledgments. I speak from experience. Although I did not separate them into a separate section with its own special name, I performed the ritual of thanks and appreciation at the end of the Preface to my book The Elephants Teach. After noting where portions of the book had previously been published, I included the names of 22 friends “who improved me by their attention and criticism.” Each of them, however, had contributed something specific to the book: they had read the manuscript (in whole or part), suffered while I tried out my argument on them, pointed me in a productive direction. Even so, the roll call reads to me now like a self-indulgence.

And yet there is a difference. And the difference is not merely, as Sacks says, that earlier novelists “saw themselves as magi,” while scholars have never done so. The difference is this.

At one time a novel was a deception. It pretended to be anything besides a novel. The intention was not to trick the reader into believing the novel was a real document from another time and place, although some readers have been tricked (George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel convinced some reviewers that it was a genuine literary find, an unpublished 19th-century manuscript newly discovered and offered to 20th-century readers). The purpose was to divide the world of the novel, the fictional world, from the world in which the novel was merely a novel — the real world, where the events of the novel never happened. Lolita does not know itself as a novel but as a prison memoir, “The Confession of a White Widowed Male.” Alexander Portnoy does not think he is writing a novel: his Complaint is a monologue on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

Even the “Notice” warning against “attempting to find a motive in this narrative” (PER G. G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE) and the “Explanatory” note that Mark Twain squeezes between the title page and the first sentence of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serve the purpose of the fictional illusion rather than trying to dispel it:

     In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the ordinary “Pike-County” dialect; and four modified variations of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
    I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
                                                                                                                   THE AUTHOR.

The world of Huckleberry Finn is its own world, with motives different from ours, although its speech is just as precise as ours. For a long time after the convention of the intrusive puppet-master novelist was thrown off, the question of a fictional narrative’s provenance, where the story came from, how a narrator came to tell it, was dramatized. It too belonged to the world of the novel. Perhaps the most common device was the frame story. Many novelists, though, disguised their novels to look like another kind of document altogether. Here’s the title page, for example, of perhaps the best baseball novel ever written:

THE SOUTHPAW
By HENRY W. WIGGEN
Punctuation freely inserted and
spelling greatly improved

By MARK HARRIS

Where the novel is a false document, any Acknowledgments (if they are made) would also be falsified — the fiction would remain intact from top to bottom. The copious Acknowledgments of recent novels, though, belong to a different and less inviting world, where financial support must be secured and logs must be rolled. What seems largely to have disappeared from contemporary fiction is not the novelists’ self-understanding of themselves as magi, but the need to pretend that a novel is anything other than a novel — anything other than the discharge of an academic professional’s academic duty, that is.