As a biographer, I believe the true and legitimate purpose of acknowledgments is to thank those who helped me: people who were interviewed, and sent unpublished letters and photographs; contemporary authors who wrote about what the subject meant to them; librarians who facilitated research; experts who answered specialized questions; friends who supplied addresses, books, and useful information, or who provided hospitality and fed the starveling author while he was on the road; my wife and traveling companion who helped with research, edited the book, and compiled the index.
But there are two other kinds of acknowledgments that exceed the bounds of decency and should be absolutely forbidden. One of these suggests fulsome self-promotion; the other expresses dubious gratitude. Those thanked in the first kind didn’t actually help the author, while those thanked in the second actually hurt him.
In the first kind, the author shows by name-dropping how important he is—I love these people, so they must also love me—and puffs himself by imitating the Academy Award acceptance speeches. The exalted and effusively thanked notables are literary equivalents of Righteous Gentiles in Israel or Living Treasures in Japan. They include ancestors, sometimes going back to Egyptian dynasties; parents who conceived the author so the book could also be born; the spiritual guru who believed in the author; the analyst who put up with years of the author’s kvetching; the author’s support group, comfort blanket, and pacifier. There is also the yoga teacher, personal trainer, chichi pet, dog walker, devoted doorman, barkeep and racing tout who hung out with his macho subject. There’s the hairdresser who did the dye job for the jacket photo, the dentist who capped the author’s teeth for the laborious makeover from academic to pop star, and the publicist who wrote the only favorable review the book will ever get. There’s preemptive praise of potentially hostile reviewers who have to be mollified and defanged. Others provided endless patience, tireless attention, unstinting assistance, and compassionate encouragement when, halfway through the book, the author seemed lost in a dark wood. This kind of acknowledgment raises a crucial question: With all this triage, what did the author himself actually do?
The other kind of fake gratitude—turn-the-other-cheek tributes—puts in paradise those who belong in purgatory. They include the editor who actually sabotaged the book by gross incompetence and unconscionable delays; the former agent who never read a word of the author’s work and failed to sell serial, paperback, and foreign rights; the enlightened dean who forked out money for this ill-fated project as if it had come out of his own absurdly inflated salary; brilliant and stimulating (that is, boring and jealous) colleagues; costive librarians who refused to part with the goods; the research assistant who misplaced and then lost precious material; the designer who devised the puke-yellow dust wrapper; and especially the author’s lovely wife who put up with his interminable obsessions and was delighted to have him sequestered in his study during the best years of their lives. This mode of false thanks explains why, with such formidable assistance, the book is such a piece of garbage.
My own acknowledgments have not been entirely free of these faults. But as an antidote to all this I once tried the dicey innovation of naming the people who were most difficult, obstructive, and unhelpful, especially after I’d spent many frustrating hours searching for them: retired actors who’ve been bitten by the press and can’t tell the difference between a reputable scholar and the National Enquirer; those who have been interviewed a thousand times and cannot stand another second of such torture; those who hate the subject, especially if he’s their father, and don’t want to go on record by saying so; those who refuse to cooperate because a sibling, usually from a different marriage, has agreed to an interview; those who pretend to be writing their own never-to-be-completed memoir or have promised to help a rival biographer “working” for twenty years on a life that has still not seen the light; solipsists who’ve never done anything for anyone; power-hungry nonentities who like to tease by neither refusing nor agreeing to meet; alcoholics who agreed to meet, but got me drunk and disoriented while trying to keep up with them during interviews and sent me reeling into the street. (The heavy drinkers, outrageously indiscreet, are the ones I like best.)
As for one’s loved ones, it would surely be more dignified and effective to say, as Joseph Conrad did in his author’s note in Nostromo, that after returning from an imaginative two-year sojourn in Latin America, he found “my family all well, my wife heartily glad to learn that the fuss was all over, and our small boy considerably grown during my absence.”