There's good, and then there's good...
A web for Queen Elizabeth

No place for the muffins

I've been thinking about acknowledgements, and now I'm going to sound like an aged granny shaking her head about how you used to be able to buy penny buns for a penny, nobody needed GPS and boots to take a country stroll, and you were lucky if... no, let's not go there. Anyway, when I first remember noticing books, 'Onlie begetters' had been left behind in the grave along with Mr W.H., and fancy engraved humble supplications were erased just as republican Beethoven did his dedication to Napoleon. In the books I read there was sometimes a brief dedication, often mysterious - 'For T.C.' - and the acknowledgements were a little list of standardly-phrased gratitude for permission to quote copyright material. In non-fiction that list might be a lot longer, and include less formal acknowledgements of 'long conversations' and 'correcting numerous small errors': the number of long-suffering, typing wives is salutary. That's part of the academic project, after all, a representation of the essential, wonderful network of scholarly knowledge and help and, of course, of the wives that made it all possible.

So when did the acknowledgements in novels become a piece of creative life writing in themselves? Agents, editors, spouses, family... Family, ouch! Who do you include, who do you not? Even the ones who never helped, just asked you over Christmas drinks when you were planning to get a proper job? Neighbours, vets, pets...

Sometimes it sounds faux-humble - little naive me, and look, all these grand people wanted to help! It can even spoil the book for the reader. In the UK paperback of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda the acknowledgements are at the front, and I read them first. So I knew that Oscar's father was based on Philip Gosse, and since I know a little about him I found it impossible not to read with half my mind on the possible facts, instead of the beautifully-written fiction. In the end I gave up on the book, and when I go back to it - which I will, it's too good not to - I'll be skipping that beginning.

Oscar-winners do it, but must we novelists? Call me inconsistent (I'm always going on about how the world needs to be shown that writing novels takes graft and craft and good childcare), call me curmudgeonly, but I think lavish acknowledgements in print, as opposed to lavish and richly-deserved thanks in person, are missing the point. I don't put bibliographies in my books, though if I wrote scholarly non-fiction they'd be very long, because the endeavour of fiction is the opposite of the scholarly endeavour. Scholars must show their working. At any point the reader should be able to track back and check the evidence that's used to support what's being said: the seams, the reinforcing of the buttonholes, the composition of the fabric. But novelists hide their working: what I'm making is a whole outfit, on a person, swishing along a catwalk or striding up a hill. Even to another writer the experience isn't about how it's hemmed, how you wash it, where the fastenings are. Later, if you choose, you can re-read for that, flip through the PS section at the end of the Morrow/Perennial paperback of TMoL, come and hear me talk at a festival, look up my website: it'll be nice to see you there. But that's after the book, and separate, and only people who want to know something about its origins in mine and others' lives, need to go there.

My mother once had a very clever but notably reserved and self-contained student, who wrote in an A Level essay, 'For once, the poet does not bother us with his private life.' You can hear the sigh of relief. When I read a novel that doesn't have a couple of pages of thanking the neighbour's dog for bringing much-needed comic relief (and possibly a basket of muffins) to the writing of this book, I feel the same.

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