This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

March 19, 2000 — One of the more amusing aspects of the book industry's striving imitation of the movie industry has been the Oscar acceptance speeches masquerading as acknowledgments pages young novelists have started attaching to their books lately.

I blame Susan Minot, whose most recent novel, "Evening," provided the ur–text — an acknowledgments page wherein she thanked the buildings and furniture in which she parked her buns whenst typing. "To," Minot wrote, "the shack at Shipyard Point, the couch at Fair Oaks Farm, the kitchen table at Windy Gates . . ."

Overnight, it seemed, a new generation of fiction writers more concerned with their photos than their prose suddenly had yet another means to pose, although some made do with embarrassing themselves via more traditional means – dedications. (David Knowles' "The Third Eye" dedication "To Jennifer, whose name is love" is my current favorite.)

But dedications, traditionally, are only a line or two long. And most new writers, it seems, have many, many things they need to say.

To wit, another moment with the ur–text: ". . . the Balinese bed in Nairobi, the green chair above the Mara River, the blue veranda in Waa, the tower at Lake Naivasha . . ."

Yes, Minot opened up a whole new world, accommodating, for one thing, endless possibilities of, oh, let's call it apple–polishing.

Thus, Alice Elliot Dark, on the acknowledgments page of her short story collection "In the Gloaming," thanks Katrina Kenison, editor of the Best American Short Stories award series.

Others make careful mention of prominent editors, such as Emily Barton's thanks, in "The Testament of Yves Gundron," to FSG's trendy young hotshot Ethan Nowasky. J.D. Dolan, in "Phoenix," thanks Knopf's prestigious veteran Gary Fisketjohn. Margot Livesy, in "The Missing World," thanks Fisketjohn, too.

David Liss, in "A Conspiracy of Paper" skips the editorial staff entirely and goes right to the top, thanking Random House President Ann Godoff.

Others thank their agents, especially if their agents are more famous than they are. Both J.D. Dolan and Margot Livesy thank famous super–agent Amanda "Binky" Urban, for example.

Fred Leebron, in "Six Figures," thanks super–agent Binky, Knopf President Sonny Mehta, and movie star Ethan Hawke for good measure.

But that's not all that's going on in acknowledgments nowadays. Let's visit the ur–text again for a moment, shall we?

". . . the nearly all–red room on Koitobos Road, the back garden on Eleventh Street, the low table in Dar–es–Salaam . . ."

Yes, the acknowledgments page has also become the place to do all that gushing the editors whom you just finished thanking made you keep out of your text.

Thus, in "The Quilter's Apprentice," author Jennifer Chiaverini thanks "Laurie Chittenden, for opening her heart to this story," and Elissa Schappell, in "Use Me," addresses those "deserving of more gratitude than I can express."

While opening a book with the author's admission of an inability to express themselves in writing might strike you as, well, foreboding, to rookies the moment of self–deprecation has become de rigueur. Richard Rushfield, for example, in "On Spec," not only thanks his sister Ali, but feels the need to tell her before a mass audience that "Without you I am a quivering bowl of Jell–O."

Of course, some acknowledgments pages don't really care whether we read them or not, the whole point of the book being, apparently, a private message — such as Susan Conant's message in "Creature Discomforts": "Steve Rubin, please note that the bichon frise in this story is named Molly. You see? I did put your dog in a book."

Finally, there's the category that mixes gushing with self–deprecation and a dash of exhibitionism into what I call the Hey Look, I've Got A Significant Other category, which is often confused with the Tell Me Again Why I Need to Know This category.

For example, Zoe Heller's acknowledgment, in "Everything You Know," of "a special debt of gratitude to Roger Thornham, who was no help whatsoever in the writing of this book but who was — and is — invaluable to me in every other way."

Schappell tops that with her encoded ode to self–infatuation: "I am in awe of the love that Rob Spillman, the last man standing at the weenie roast when it started to snow, has bestowed on me."

Well, there are other categories, but unfortunately I can't get into them right now. With Minot still playing in the background (". . . the terrace at the end of via dei Riari, the booth in Livingston, Monatana . . ."), I have to get back to writing my novel (note to Steve Rubin: Your dog, Molly, gets run over on page 94).

But first I'd like to thank my heartthrob, Petunia, for having the wisdom to love me, my parents, for giving me birth and all the people who just exist in my world.

Oh yes, and Binky Urban.


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