I guess it’s late in the week, so it’s time for something trivial to become a thing. But Noreen Malone devoted a column in this week’s New Republic to snark on the Brobdingnagian acknowledgments section of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which led Slate David Haglund to rise to the defense of acknowledgements.
Ever since Slate published an article defending Michael Bay’s films, I’ve paused before siding with the magazine on a question of culture. Still, after carefully reconsidering my position on the matter, I will own that I love acknowledgements. Harlan Ellison introduced me to them in his short story collections, and in them it’s possible to see that even a man with Ellison’s reputation for a volcanic temper not only has friends, but also has the ability to keep them and praise them without stint. Acknowledgements can reveal what the ordinary narrative voice, or the voice of the author from press interviews, columns, and blog posts can’t. They’re a peek into something a bit more private. They feel, at their best, a bit like eavesdropping, like reading a message that’s not addressed to me.
Of course, there are good acknowledgements and bad ones. The bad ones are everything Noreen Malone says they are: cloying, smarmy, clubby, pretentious, and full of name dropping. (Come on, E.J. Dionne, you and I both know that the only person who’s gotten more than he’s given from Newt Gingrich is Newt Gingrich.) But the distinction of good from bad acknowledgements is like the difference between good and bad anything. The good stuff lets readers in on secrets they want to hear. The bad stuff lets them in on secrets they’d pay good money to forget.