That space where our names should be:
writers, acknowledgments and the 'creative underclasses of history'
I love acknowledgment pages. When done well, they are microcosms of our writing worlds, the cast of characters and support staff behind our fervid acts of creation, and an important historical document in their own right. One can glean plenty about the mind behind the book in your hands from the length, tone, and technique involved in those often-skipped lists of unknown people. We also learn much about the cultural values of the societies from which they spring. However insignificant in the great sweep of things writing etiquette may seem, the politics of mutual respect and care underline all of our actions, and as cultural producers, we have responsibilities to one another as part of how we relate to the wider world.
For many of us, the acknowledgments page is the fun bit, the sense of closure or catharsis, the chance to state the importance of a triple expresso and AC/DC’s ‘For those about to rock’ at 5 am to one’s creative kick, or to reveal a secret crush on ‘HB at the library’ who helped with the research on trawlers in the nineteen sixties. Yet the more time we devote to thinking about the means of our literary production and its huge cast of characters, the more suffused with the same light and shade of justice that exists elsewhere in society, as to who is valued and who is disposable. Some of this comes from our illusions about individual brilliance and solitary originality, some of it is simply not understanding how the gift economy which drives most of our creative enterprises works, and some of it can be pure spite.
Credits matter: not just to posterity but to building a respectful culture amongst writers and those who I am going to call the 'creative underclasses of history'. We’ve all seen films like The Wife or Colette which portray the cultural prejudice against women writers or the egoism of the heroic male artist unable to admit that maybe their great art was not exactly their work. Creative history is littered with literary backstabbing and silence: all of those grievances about plot plagiarism, whose sequence of notes in an A minor chord was the original, which dastardly author omitted the names of their researcher and spurned lover. We know how this airbrushing has played out in the politics of science too – the brilliant mathematicians behind the US space program, the ‘hidden figures’ who just happened to be women of colour or Francis and Crick’s colleague in the discovery of DNA whose name escapes me even as I am writing this (it was Rosalind Franklin).
Most forms of knowledge sharing and creativity exist outwith the formal economy and are hard to calculate. The shaping of culture is such a spontaneous and fluid process, which can turn on a word from a stranger in the street or whilst one is putting out the recycling, that keeping a ‘helper count’ feels preposterous. These moments may seem hard to formalize in an acknowledgments page, but I like the late David Graeber’s suggestion that he lists everyone with whom he had had a conversation in the years that it took to write Towards an Anthropological theory of value. (1)
Let’s think about this from a film maker’s point of view and how you might assemble a cast and crew for your next great work. Who do you need to keep the project on the rails, who is going to do the location research, who is good on set design, knows how to film at night, who is going to run the creche? Now imagine that you are sitting in a big-budget Hollywood film, whose credit sequence is curtailed after a few seconds of actors, producers, and corporate sponsors, and replaced with a short statement of thanks to ‘everyone who made the film happen (but are too many to list)’ and the screen goes blank. You’d intuitively feel that something was wrong, that it would swiftly crank up again, Monty Python style – ‘and also Fred’s mate John, the one with the big nose, who was always late and farted a lot’. We’ve become so accustomed to looking for the ‘key grips’, ‘matte painters’ and animal charity approval statements, that we feel a bit cheated when a streaming service tries to limit those curiously meditative moments. So why do we as writers leave so many of our support staff on the literary equivalent of the cutting room floor?
It’s not part of our individualistic brief. We are too locked into publishing industry mythologies of J.D. Salinger heroic isolation and mysterious magic in New England retreats. The writing process is not taught with a view to collective working and support. There are no online masterclasses from the latest prize-winning authors on creative etiquette and the politics of acknowledgment. Amidst all of the digital reams of advice on ‘how to write commercially’ and ‘hooking the right agent’, utilizing one’s local gift economy - maximizing what sociologists call ‘the strength of weak ties’ (2) - to feel part of a wider artistic community is well down the agenda. Yet solidarity with others can be the difference between continuing to string words together and giving up altogether, after a bruising from the publishing industry. Remembering to assemble your CV of cooperation is an art worth cultivating because it rewards you back in the long term.
There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your name in print unexpectedly. I remember browsing in a bookshop a few years back and coming across a book by an old work colleague, a now pretty famous cultural historian with whom I had had a few kettle conversations about the subject in question and thought nothing of it. I’d moved on, to teach at another University, but when it came to penning his tributes, he’d not forgotten the names of the twenty or so folks who’d read early drafts or he had engaged in similar exchanges with. The converse can be heartbreaking: if one has traveled on those imaginative and emotional journeys with others, buzzed with that rare energy that a shared project can radiate, to find it all come crashing down in one of those awful anonymous comfort blanket phrases ‘thanks to all those who lasted the journey/helped weave the creative tapestry’.
I remember that first ‘cut’ from history only too well – the emptiness of the page, acid in the stomach, mouth frozen in an ‘oh’ – and the impossibility of explaining to someone else how it felt. Opening the programme to this particular production which I had been one of only two advisors on (the other was a famous Guardian journalist whose name was included), I realized that my time with the writer in the pubs and cafes had just been background chat to the main event, even though there was little difference in our experience with the protest arena on which the play was centred (or the time we’d gifted to helping out). Writing with others on progressive projects seems to count double; that there is even more need to acknowledge the creative navvies who helped dig the canals on which the noble vessel majestically glides.
I’ve been guilty too – my comfort blanket phrases now all the itchier over time. The words ‘you know who you are’ still haunt me. In her wondrous The Death and Life of Great American Cities (3), Jane Jacobs admits that many of those listed in her page of tributes are people she had heated debates and disagreements with, but that it was impossible to separate their ideas and hers in the process. Many writers are anything but so genuine or generous: does the most famous Japanese author in the world get by entirely on his own quite so frequently; do the two female Booker-winning authors on my shelf work in such brilliant isolation that their books go magically from typewriter to readers in some Star Trek-style 3-D printing moment and without needing even a syllable of gratitude to others?
Brian Eno has suggested that there is a problem with how we frame artistic accomplishment in capitalist societies. Rather than focusing on the hagiographic ‘genius’ aspect of great works of endeavor, he suggests that we should leave this out of the equation and think about the culture from which they emerge; to visualize art as a more collective process, the product of what he calls ‘scenius’. There is, he says, always an ecology of ideas behind any work, which reflects the intelligence of the whole and that of a wider social and economic environment. (4) Less ‘standing on the shoulders of’, more, the soloist in a community choir whose harmonies and counterparts one cannot do without.
The ‘creative underclasses of history’ (5) represent something more profound than a potential list of names at the back of your book. When we acknowledge these personal support structures we reveal the strength of the bonds which hold societies together which cannot be understood within the formal monetary system: the workings of the ‘gift economy’. One of the many intellectual accomplishments of David Graeber was to put the ever-relevant work of the French socialist anthropologist Marcel Mauss back into the spotlight. Writing in the early twentieth century, Mauss outlined the social complexities behind any trading system which took place in so-called primitive cultures and demonstrated how richer in values and respect they were than the rational systems of capitalist exchange in the West. He argued that the social importance of objects as they transferred hands went far beyond any buyer-seller transaction and created new forms of obligations and ties, adding to an already complicated fabric of associations. Mauss suggested that there were no barriers between ‘interest and altruism, person and property, freedom and obligations’; that work, trade and everyday life constituted a ‘total social phenomenon’ in a culture. (6)
We would do well to remember that as writers. During this strange time of social isolation and ecological uncertainty, values of mutual aid and empathy are all the more important in maintaining our creative health. So, start making your lists today, remember who has already paid in the gift economy when you have free copies of your prized creation to give away and try to avoid texting your thanks to ‘everyone who helped out’ and dispensing with an acknowledgments page altogether. Let your tributes sing with the enthusiasm of a first time published writer who thanks their local vicar and pet goldfish for spiritual inspiration. Be as humble as Ruth Ozeki, who after two rich pages of tributes at the end of A Tale for the Time Being declares ‘I bow to you all’. (7)
Our gift economies transmit to future generations. Let’s remember the pioneering writers and social historians who dragged the real underclasses of history back into the light, gave us a better picture of the ‘scenius’ which produced the songs, poems, and political pamphlets at times of great social upheaval in centuries past. Let us show love in the age of corona and rescue the proofreader, the typesetter, the arts centre worker, the guitar roadie, and all of those dedicated librarians (especially 'HB' from the trawler research!) from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. (8)
Liberate your local creative underclass today!
1. Graeber, David. Towards an anthropological theory of value. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
2. Granovetter, M.S. 'The strength of weak ties', American Journal of Sociology, 76, 6 (1973): 1360-1380.
3. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
4. Gentry, Alex. ‘What is the scenius?’, posted 3 February 2017.
https://medium.com/salvo-faraday/what-is-the-scenius-15409eb6ac72 (accessed 3 September 2020)
5 The phrase is not mine. It has been used to explain the workings of
contemporary urban regeneration as depending on an artisan class of skilled and specialist labour, which is fluid, often underpaid and sometimes invisible. See George Morgan and and Xuefei Ren 'The Creative Underclass: Culture, Subculture, and
Urban Renewal' Journal of Urban Affairs
Volume 34, 2012 - Issue 2 Pages 127-130 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9906.2012.00606.x (this is behind an academic paywall - boo hiss)
6. Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2004, 17.
7. Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale For The Time Being. Edinburgh Canongate, 2013.
8. Thompson, E.P. 'Preface' to The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Penguin 1963: p12.
'Hands picture' stock image from (writer) www.helenkara.com
'Cloud' photo from https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/the-maloja-snake/
(as seen in the 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria).