Saturday 17 March 2007

Authors' acknowledgements reflect grim reality not fashion

"There is more and more an atmosphere of carpentry that comes across in many creative writing schools."

Ian Jack, Granta Magazine, speaking on the Today show
Interesting short on the Today Programme this week :

Ian Jack, editor of literary magazine Granta, politely fulminated against a trend for writers to write pages and pages of acknowledgements in their books.

Today pitted Jack against the author Christopher Cook, who included four pages of acknowledgements in his collection of short stories. Jack, careful to declare Cook’s book "a fine collection" nevertheless rubbished his public display of gratitude:
His acknowledgements go on for four pages and include all kinds of all people Including Stacey at Caribou Coffee … Creative writing skill tutors, wonderful friends of all kinds …It’s like watching the end titles of a film.
The acknowledgements, he said, "devalues" an author’s work:
Something else is happening in America which is beginning to happen here more often too in which… the creative writing experience is a kind of workshop experience in which you are encouraged to read your work aloud and have it criticised by your colleagues. And there is more and more I think almost an atmosphere of carpentry that comes across in many creative writing schools and I think that kind of cooperative effort in writing which is not usually expected as a way to write is becoming more and more common.
Interestingly enough, I just spent the other night reading my work aloud to my critique group – who definitely deserve vociferous thanks if ever my book is published. My acknowledgements would definitely include my husband for all his support, and SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which runs workshops and events that have helped me learn the craft … I could probably fill more than four pages if I thanked all the folks who’ve given me any input.

Ian Jack describes the acknowledgements phenomenon as if it is just another thing we in the UK are yet again picking up from the Americans. But there is more reality than fashion behind this trend.

The fact is, the publishing scene has changed beyond recognition. No longer can you expect to be taken under a gentle editor’s wing and nurtured. The market is so tough, the pool of people who imagine themselves authors so numerous, that you can’t take chances on talent shining from an imperfect manuscript, or an indulgent agent taking the time to cultivate you and your book into shining perfection. When you shove that manuscript package into the post box, it better be as good as it can get.

Hence the need for critique groups, writing school, workshops, book doctors etc. etc. etc.

Christopher Cook, in his defense against Jack’s withering scorn, pleaded guilty to honing his craft.
I don’t think it is being a craftsman like a carpenter. If a classical pianist admitted to having taken music lessons from fine teachers and other fine musicians then people wouldn’t bat an eye. Writing is an art like any other. It can be learned in a studio like any other.
To which Ian Jack went into full carmudgeonly mode: "Learning to write fiction is becoming more of a social accomplishment rather like water colour painting was in 1860 for certain kinds of young lady."

Yeah, right. But aren’t there easier ways of social climbing than spending month after lonely month writing a novel then allowing your critique group to slag it off?

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