Writing book acknowledgments can be so fraught. It should be a moment of triumph, cheer, relief. But there are so many potential pitfalls – forgetting people, sounding like a tosser, omitting crucial research assistance, sounding like a tosser, being excessively sentimental and sounding like a tosser.
The (not very) humble acknowledgements page has come under attack in recent years, from people who see it as an unnecessary exercise in pointless posturing and name dropping. Journalist Sam Sacks railed against the “undercurrent of faux-modest promotion” that “runs like a viral strain” on acknowledgment pages. American author Emily Gould advised against including them at all, pleading for writers “to have pity on the world, look out for your own best interests, and keep your acknowledgments spare or nonexistent. Your readers, trust me, will be thanking YOU.”
Others have suggested leaving a blank space in which people can insert their own names. And yet … there are people to applaud.
Having once forgotten to thank a hugely supportive, beautiful old boyfriend at a book launch – much to my horror and the continuing amusement of my friends – it was with particular caution that I approached writing the acknowledgments of a biography now whirring through the printers.
When a creative project has dominated years, turned you into a distracted recluse, and stretched the patience of people you love like an inflating wad of bubblegum, you want to get it right.
At least I thought this until I stumbled across the clever acknowledgments of a man called Brendan Pietsch, an assistant professor of religious studies at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, who wrote in his book Dispensational Modernism: “I blame all of you. Writing this book has been an exercise in sustained suffering. The casual reader may, perhaps, exempt herself from excessive guilt, but for those of you who have played the larger role in prolonging my agonies with your encouragement and support, well …you know who you are, and you owe me.”
He made me wonder if maybe we have the whole thing wrong. Maybe instead of thanking – or cursing, as he did – the long list of lovely people who support us, maybe we need to scold, burn or gloat over those who didn’t.
Wouldn’t it be cathartic to write, and juicy to read, unacknowledgments? A list of people who kind of screwed things up for you, who hurled massive obstacles in front of you, who distracted and misoccupied you (I know that is not a word but it should be); who soaked up enormous amounts of your time on … not much and frankly make it seem amazing you have finished anything at all?
Take for example the inspiringly blunt Joseph Rotman, who dedicated his book An Introduction to Algebraic Topology: “To my wife Marganit and my children Ella Rose and Daniel Adam without whom this book would have been completed two years earlier.”
But you don’t just need to slam family members, you could sledge acquaintances as well. The people who asked endless, pointed, deflating questions about when you were finishing the book, not about what you had explored, found, delighted in, puzzled over. And while we thank excellent librarians, what about the ones who either fail to respond or deliberately ignore requests? The keepers of valuable documents who snubbed you, or only opened once a year for two weeks?
You could shake your fist at those who doubted your project, told you it couldn’t be done or cast it as mere pabulum. Think of the vengeful joy on the face of coach Mark Williams, who, after leading Port Adelaide to victory in the 2004 grand final memorably shouted out on stage to the sponsor who told him he could never win: “Allan Scott, you were wrong.”
You could also catalogue the grief and angst of personal lives; any lovers who enchanted you, stirred your brain to porridge, or broke your hearts; employers who routinely made you work overtime, and, in my case, the playground equipment that broke your child’s bones (Thank you Mona Vale Hospital, for the six weeks I spent there writing Chapter 10).
I could also have a special shout out to pests: the mice that infested my study in Philadelphia, the lice that clung stubbornly to my kids’ heads, the ticks that took two of my cat’s nine lives.
I could UN-dedicate mine to those who decry the humanities as a waste of time, or say that there is nothing new to learn about hugely important, myth-riddled women, or who dismiss history that looks at women as whole, complicated, curious and variable human beings as “ideological”. And also to politicians and bureaucrats who think arts funding is irrelevant, history contained only in war memorials and that fostering young imaginations in schools should not be part of the curriculum. To the senior writer who told me when I was pregnant with my first child that the only reason I had ever achieved anything was because I was young and female, and that I should stop working when I was a mother.
Sir, this book is not for you.
Wouldn’t that be fun? But it would also be self-indulgent, petulant and a bit graceless. I’ll only say the nice stuff instead.
Julia Baird hosts The Drum on ABCTV. Her biography of Queen Victoria will, at long last, be published in Australia next month. And she is infinitely grateful to everyone who lent a hand.