The Debts We Owe & The Thanks We Give

Article title, "The Debts We Owe and the Thanks We Give", with three covers: Piers Anthony's Split Infinity and Juxtaposition; Grace Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

I was never big into fan culture — never keen to get someone’s autograph, or be in the same room as a famous creator. I still cringe on the rare occasion when people suggest that might be something I look forward to myself — having a “fan club”. Oof. No. Can’t we all just be human beings together?

But for some reason, once I started devouring the works of Piers Anthony far too young, I always looked forward to the end of the book most of all, where the author himself made an appearance. Anthony’s acknowledgments sections would often go on for many pages, with huge lists of readers’ names thrown in. In that hefty chunk of back content (sometimes nestled between the main book and a preview chapter for the next), Anthony would reveal the source of his many puns and worldbuilding elements, provide backstory about character names inspired by readers who’d written him in states of medical distress, and share tidbits about the writing process.

Now certainly, as a child, those writer’s-craft notes would have sung out to the writer in me, too. If I recall correctly (and honestly, I think I remember more from the acknowledgments sections than I do from many of the books themselves), he used yellow legal pads to write out the full first draft of his novel, and the whole process took around three drafts, mostly handwritten or on typewriter — with his move from typewriter to word-processor coming much slower, over the course of his career, than it did for others in the industry.

This analog-driven creative process also went a long way to explaining, as he sheepishly had to in one acknowledgments section for an Apprentice Adept book, that he’d lost his map for the computer system integral to every book in that series. His workaround involved writing system glitches into subsequent stories, but I remember being baffled that he couldn’t reconstruct the system from previously published works. Maybe… maybe writers weren’t the most “together” of human beings?

Now, though, both as an adult and as a writer with a range of short-story publications under my belt, I realize what the appeal of his acknowledgments sections really was: In them (and for all the iffy aspects in many of the fictions themselves!), Anthony lived the concept that “fan culture” should run right back to the audience — which for me is exactly as it should be.

Why?

Because the pedestal only exists when an audience (and an industry) puts the author there.

Because readers choosing to invest time and money in what we writers create is a gift.

And because no one is entitled to either from a stranger.

What a wonder it has been for me, then, to make connections with other people simply on the basis of my words, as they have been published to date in SF&F magazines and year’s best anthologies, or for humanist essays on Patheos. And as I now enter into the fray of professional e-publishing, where I really will be depending on the kindness (and curiosity) of strangers for any small slice of financial success, what an added joy it will be if the work I produce turns out to have resonated with even one stranger in the process.

Yes, money should always flow to the writer — inasmuch as a writer shouldn’t be exploited by other members of their industry — but gratitude should flow to the reader, and to everyone behind the scenes who made it possible for the work to be read widely at all.

This last point is especially key, because an acknowledgments section is also the first place where we writers can and should do even more to situate our work in broader contexts.

In the last couple of days, for instance, literary Twitter has been processing yet another body of data confirming what most of us already knew: that Western publishing is predominantly, disproportionately white. In the last 50 years, only 5% of published works had at least one author identified as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & other Persons of Colour). In 2018, while the U.S. population of non-Hispanic white persons was 60.1%, 89% of published books were by the same demographic — and only one year for the whole half a century prior has a lower disparity.

Worse yet, this is only one set of stats around racialized inclusions; there are also a huge number of class-based, ableist, and geopolitical impediments that shape the world of publishing, such that certain demographics have a much greater chance of seeing success with the written word.

Often, though — and precisely because the publishing world is so insular and self-selecting — we forget the debt we owe to a much wider body of social and existential factors. We see only the work we’ve done, and how much struggle we’ve faced… failing to take into account just how many other people have worked hard and faced struggle, too, without being able to access the same rewards.

A perfect example just came to me this morning, even, when I was reading an old Paris Review interview with Grace Paley, a lovely human being who wrote moving stories and poems. Asked about her road to publishing, here’s how she described the process:

I’d written three stories, and I liked them. I showed them to my former husband, Jess Paley, and he liked them, and he showed them to a couple of friends, and they liked them, so I was feeling pretty good about them. The kids were still young at the time, and they played a lot with the neighborhood kids, so I got to know the other mothers in the neighborhood. One of them was Tibby McCormick, who had just gotten unmarried from Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday. She knew about these stories, and poor Ken was more or less forced into reading them—you know, The kids are over at her house all the time, you might read her stories. So he took them home and read them and he came over to see me and said, Write seven more of them and we’ll publish a book. So that’s what happened. Luck happened. He also told me that no magazine around would touch them, and he was pretty much right about that too, although two of the stories in that collection were finally taken by Accent.

https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2028/the-art-of-fiction-no-131-grace-paley

Now, within the world of Paley, I have no doubt that there were trials and tribulations — losses, hardships, doubts, and failures — but as this description plainly outlines, she also at least sometimes overlooked how much her “luck” was predicated on some particularly loaded dice, in terms of where she got to live and whom she got to know. Nor is she anywhere near an isolated case in this regard, because the work of exclusion in Western publishing emerged, and is sustained by, a much more widespread dividing of our networks along some fairly sharply drawn demographic lines.

The work of acknowledging those who make the work possible, then, is not just about creating a fan culture that runs back to the reader; it’s also about doing our part, as writers, to see that the table is also extended to other writers in turn. When we are honest and upfront about the unequal and unjust systems of opportunity that have given us the means to see our work in the hands of a wider audience, we’re helping to dismantle the toxic notion that any of us ever creates in a vacuum; and that “hard work” and “talent” are ever sufficient to explain the success of some amid the critical oblivion of others.

I am thankful to so very many people for allowing me to write and publish (on December 14) Third Planet Fall Down, the first of four Menagerie Mysteries novellas to be released in the coming months. And yet, the work of properly acknowledging all of them, and my surrounding opportunity-contexts, remains a skill I know I still need to refine. I already know of two more names I need to slip into the Gumroad versions before Monday (and into Amazon after Monday, if I’m able to revise my version then). Likewise, I’ve got some ideas for even bigger improvements on the section for Book Two: The Moon Is Not My Name, to be released on January 5th.

But also thanks to all these people and these contexts… there’s time enough for me to improve in this facet of the writing process, too.

May the work you do instill in you a greater sense of your good fortune, too.


Third Planet Falls Down releases on December 14, 2020, but is already available for pre-order on kindle (35% author take, better reach) and Gumroad (100% author take, lower reach).

You can read the first three chapters here!


M L Clark talks about the importance of “acknowledgment sections”, as a way of reversing fan culture and dismantling myths upholding publishing’s disparities.

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