Before 2014, catch up on the best of 2013. For the next few weeks, we'll be re-posting a selection of our most thought-provoking pieces of the year.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In hasn’t even been published yet, and already it’s sparked a national conversation about modern feminism. Though worthy, this has obscured the national conversation we should really be having. Lean In exposes a vein of something truly endemic and toxic in our culture. I refer, of course, to the current ridiculous state of the “Acknowledgments” section, which has perhaps reached its nadir in Sandberg’s work. Lean in, and drop a name.
Sandberg is not entirely to blame: As a first time author, she was merely following recent convention. And as a high-achiever, she was merely outdoing everyone else who has written an acknowledgment section in the past few years. Where readers used to see, perhaps, a paragraph thanking the writer’s editor and agent, a few key researchers, and maybe a family member or two, now we are confronted with a chapter-long laundry list of name after name. Sandberg’s seven-and-a-half page section, for instance, thanks more than 140 people for contributing to her 172 page book. She doesn’t just thank her superagent, she thanks her superagent’s boss, Ari Emanuel, “for his friendship as well as his ever-amusing and supportive check-in calls.” She doesn’t just thank her editor, she thanks “Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of Knopf, whose unflagging support kept this project on the fast track.”
The large bodycount, along with the accompanying exegeses of just how each person helped, makes Lean On seem a more appropriate title. For instance, Sandberg explains that her cowriter, former Spy staff writer Nell Scovell, “put in nights, early mornings, weekends, and holidays,” which sounds rather awful for Scovell, no matter what the pay. (Although Sandberg reveals the importance of Scovell’s work in her mixed-metaphor valentine: “Her heart rings true and clear on this book’s every page.”) She also lets us know that Scovell wasn’t the only person who adjusted her schedule. Harvard Professor Hannah Riley Bowles “interrupted her vacation to spend hours on the phone discussing her work,” a description that was surely meant to express genuine gratitude, but mainly just clarifies the global pecking order. We also learn that childhood friend Mindy Levy scoured many drafts and that this tendency to conscript the semi-willing isn’t new: “And just as she did for so many of my papers for so many years, my college roommate Carrie Weber stayed up many late nights line editing every sentence.”
Lean On might be a more appropriate title for Sandberg's book.
The 140-plus number, by the way, does not double-count the several people Sandberg thanks in multiple places, like Larry Summers, whom she makes sure to note—though she’s already mentioned this in the body of the work itself—“offered to advise my senior thesis, gave me my first job out of college, and has been an important part of my life ever since.” Summers is hardly the most famous person Sandberg mentions, nor is Gloria Steinem, who “has shared her wisdom with me since I was lucky enough to meet her six years ago.” She also mentions, in a single paragraph, Arianna Huffington (“She sent comments on drafts from all around the world, adding her insight and deep understanding of cultural trends”), Oprah Winfrey (whom she texts with, and whose voice Sandberg hears “in my head,” when she’s weighing some challenge, “reminding me of being authentic”), and Gene Sperling (“one of the busiest people I know, and yet he found the time to write page after page of key suggestions”). Draft-readers included Bill McKibben, Don Graham, and Carole Geithner. Name-dropping the spouse of a famous person might be the most powerful namedrop of all, implying a double-date degree of intimacy. It is awfully difficult not to read Sandberg’s acknowledgments sections as a coda to her professional self-help book. It is not just what you know nor is it even who you know: It is how you let the world know who you know.
While Sandberg is the latest egregious example, she’s in good company. E.J. Dionne, a master of the form, tends to include just about every famous person he has ever met in his end pages. “[I]f these acknowledgments are a bit long, I hope the reader will forgive me. It’s because I have a lot of debts to pay,” he writes at the close of Why Americans Hate Politics. (The list is actually very useful in that it offers a much more concise evocation of why Americans hate politics than the book itself: Look no farther than his lengthy list to be reminded of Washington’s much-maligned clubbiness.)1 Chelsea Clinton was recently thanked in the acknowledgments of Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, and also scattered faux-carelessly amidst the long list of Brooklyn writer types who’d read drafts of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction, suggesting either that Ms. Clinton has a particular interest in highbrow modes of self-discovery, or that those interested in highbrow modes of self-discovery have a particular interest in her. In Al Gore’s The Future, he thanks 73 individuals by name, including Ray Kurzweil (he’s writing about the future, after all), Jared Diamond, E.O. Wilson, and someone named Bill Simmons (no, not that one) who cooked “terrific meals during the innumerable working sessions in Nashville.”
Gore’s tribute to someone I assume is household help illustrates that acknowledgments are not only a place for social positioning, they also serve as a reminder that it takes a village to write a book. It’s difficult to locate when exactly this mode became de rigeur, though it had been codified enough by the 1990s that Lingua Franca published an essay on the many cats and dogs who had been thanked in academic acknowledgments. Lately, the image of the solitary writer seems a distant one. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, thanks “Everyone at Inform Fitness,” every single member of her two separate children’s literature classes, her working writer’s strategy groups, her book group for adult literature, and the “friends from blogland who have given advice and linklove.” “I only hope I get to meet them in real life one day,” she says.2 In her book On Becoming Fearless, Arianna Huffington also thanked the help: In her case, the staff of the then-nascent Huffington Post, which she seems to have turned into de facto factcheckers and researchers for her (other) personal project.
Name-dropping the spouse of a famous person might be the most powerful namedrop of all.
How did we get here? “You don't see Joseph Conrad thanking Ford Madox Ford, or Virginia Woolf giving shout-outs to Leonard, Lytton, Vanessa, Clive, and Vita,” the (often thanked) editor of the Paris Review, Lorin Stein, told me via e-mail. “That kind of thing mars the real intimacy of a novel, which is—or should be—between writer and reader and nobody else.”
Regardless of the consequences, an etiquette of acknowledgements has emerged that might be part of the problem. I have been thanked in one acknowledgement section, a friend’s debut novel that I’d casually read. While I didn’t expect to see my name and was happily flattered, I also imagine that if I’d been forgotten, I would have wondered why the people who did appear were so much more helpful or important than I. Alex Star, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, compares the pressures attached to the acknowledgements pages to the social norms surrounding tipping. “No one wants to be a less generous tipper,” and no one wants to be the person who forgets the little people in his or her moment of glory. (Stein, for his part, resists the for-politeness-sake acknowledgement: “What's wrong with a handwritten note?” he wondered. “You didn't win an Oscar. You wrote a book, and—as a matter of mere statistical fact—the odds are it's about to be remaindered.”)
Or maybe the recent mutual admiration party run amok has something to do with the dire economics straits of book publishing. One publishing world insider reminded me that book parties have been severely scaled back in recent years, and so a thank you in the acknowledgements can take the place of a few free drinks and a short speech for the assembled guests.
Just as with book parties, there can be intrigue over who makes it in. Pamela Paul, features editor at The New York Times Book Review, says that the Times’ policy of not assigning book reviews to anyone who’s thanked in the book has led to some behind-the-scenes machinations. Authors will purposefully include someone they fear will pan them in those influential pages—or leave out someone they’re hoping will get the assignment. It’s a somewhat shocking degree of calculation for something that is—supposedly—merely about expressions of gratitude. All of which leaves one to wonder whether, had it been the custom in Machiavelli’s time, the acknowledgments for The Prince might have given Lean In a run for its money.
This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the skillful editing of Chloe Schama or the helpful brainstorming of my colleagues Timothy Noah, Cameron Abadi, Marc Tracy, Judith Shulevitz, and Ben Crair. Thanks, too, to Sam Tanenhaus, Pamela Paul, Lorin Stein, and Alex Star for their thoughtful comments on the topic. Thanks to Chris Hughes and Frank Foer for hiring me, my mother for birthing me, Al Gore for inventing the Internet, and the Germans and the Romans for the building blocks of the English language. I only wish my severely under-cared-for jade plant could have survived to see its publication—thank you to it, as well, for the sacrifice in service of this larger project of journalism. And of course I could not fail to thank Martha Stewart, who I tweet at with some regularity and who continues to be my inspiration as a woman who doesn’t let rules, pursuant to the federal penal code or otherwise, get in the way of her tastefully cruel mien. Any errors herein are a copy editor’s or an intern’s, and anyone I have forgotten to mention, it is because I secretly hate them. Thanks to Michelle Obama for EVERYTHING!!!