Suzi Feay: At The Sharp End

'The Booker acceptance speech is a chance for novelists to do a Gwynnie – sob, emote and gush their thanks'


Six months of back-to-back literary prize judging is starting to play tricks with my mind. I'm word-drunk, plot-dizzy. Minutes after finishing a novel, I have to start another one. They overlap. Characters migrate from book to book in the most disconcerting fashion.

Then there are the eerie coincidences. You watch Ashes to Ashes, where Keeley Hawes goes to the Blitz club and dances with the New Romantics, then curl up with one of your assigned books. One page later, a character goes to the Blitz club and dances with the New Romantics... Or you read two novels in succession where the beleaguered heroine watches a fly twisting helplessly in a spider's web. Not that that proves anything beyond the authors' penchant for an obvious metaphor, but still – it's weird.

But above all is one major consideration: just how fulsome and risible will the author's acknowledgements be?

There used to be a convention of thanking librarians and archivists for their assistance, and male authors thanked their wives and secretaries for doing the typing, but now acknowledgements pages have got ridiculously bloated. And novelists who thank their darling mum, their heavenly dad, their gorgeous sister, their friends, agent, publicist, copy editor, publisher, ad infinitum, are among the worst offenders.

Zadie Smith is a good example. In 2002, in The Autograph Man, she confined her thanks to a terse half-page. By 2005, in On Beauty, that had doubled. Her agent was a "Bobby Dazzler"; her copy editor was "the cleverest... a girl could hope for"; and as for her husband, the book was not only dedicated "For my dear Laird", the acknowledgements gushed, "whose poetry I steal to make my prose look pretty". I can feel the hydrochloric acid rising in my gullet.

Like many trends, I feel this one initiated over the pond. American writers specialise in acknowledgements so detailed they read as though they're in code, with jokes and references that are mystifying to the mug punter. There's no embarrassment about the "hey – too much information" style of credit; I met a whip-smart, wisecracking New York author who managed to thank her husband "for helping me and helping me and helping me and living with me and still loving me and helping me some more and still loving me..." Another young American writer opined about editors she was "blessed to work with", her "incredible friends... I love you guys so much", and her family, who "make me feel like the luckiest kid alive!"

Of course, there may be a perfectly straightforward transaction going on. If you put in your acknowledgements that a famous writer is "lovely and wise beyond belief", it's all the more likely that the big name will reciprocate by giving you a jacket quote calling you "an exciting young novelist, gifted with an elegant style and a narrative ambition as deep and as serious as the human mysteries she sets out to explore".

Well, if the Americans started it, us tight-lipped, modest Brits are quick to follow. My recent favourites include the thriller writer who takes three pages to explain that the various professionals who helped her with research are nothing like their murderous, paranoid counterparts in the book (you know what? We get it. It's fiction), and who ends with "Bless you Mum, you always believed I could do it." Well, that's mums for you, isn't it? My mum would be only mildly surprised if I climbed Everest or became a chess grandmaster.

And just in case you think I'm only talking about fiction, I recently read a scholarly book by a young academic whose acknowledgements included the usual suspects – the Bodleian, the British Library, the Record Office – but who ended by thanking her mother for "taking great care of Maud 'while Mummy was doing her working'". Bleaugh!

It's not just the chicks, either. A publisher friend cites the thriller writer who thanked his wife "for pleasuring me greatly". Another wants honourable mention to go to Edward Docx: two and a half pages in which Bob Dylan gets a longer entry than Docx's partner.

One novelist acquaintance points out that some thanks may be as fictional as anything that preceded them: "So your editor tried to ruin your novel? OK, but you want them to buy the next one, so they become 'helpful'; your parents tried to ruin your childhood, but approve of you now you're a published author, so they have been 'supportive'; your partner is trying to ruin your life and will find new ways of doing so if you don't thank him properly, so he has been 'wonderful' and so on." She insists: "Mine are all heartfelt and genuine! Almost."

A top literary agent told me: "Most agents would never admit it, but there's always a little thrill when your client mentions you in their acknowledgements and an undeniable slump if you're not. Closely followed by paranoia about why you aren't mentioned. Of course, the ultimate is having an entire book dedicated to you as the agent... and, no I'm not hinting."

A successful novelist, as yet unladen with prizes, once told me: "We all practise our Booker acceptance speech in our imagination... any author who denies it is lying." Here, surely, is the answer. The Man Booker Prize is a distant dream for the vast majority of novelists, but this at least is their chance to do a Gwynnie or a Halle Berry: to sob, emote and gush, hand out bouquets and compensate for the chip of ice in the heart that made them lock themselves up in the study ignoring their loved ones in the first place.

Oh, and I'd just like to thank the brilliant editor who commissioned this piece, the amazing subs, the illustrator, the photographer, and my mum. I LOVE you guys!

Rebecca Tyrrel is away

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