Shallow Gratitude

By Christi Chidester | June 1, 2007 | 0 comments

In an issue of the journal Granta earlier this year, editor Ian Jack railed against a new trend in the literary world: the tendency of young American writers to burden their books with excessively long acknowledgments sections, thanking everyone from their agents to their friends to the baristas at their local cafés. This is all a bit much for Jack.

“Why should the writer imagine we care about any of them?” he writes. “Might it be that he thinks his work is so brilliant that its worth needs some explanation?”

Jack contrasts these American writers with their British counterparts, as well as their American predecessors, who offer short, simple, and even cryptic words of thanks, such as “To H.J.” So what are we to make of these very different displays of gratitude?

One answer is suggested by a 1995 study of gratitude. The researchers asked participants to write about two events in their lives, a major success and a major failure. Half of the subjects were told to write their names on every page of the response sheets and to be prepared to share their stories with six to eight other participants. The other group was instructed to leave their names off the responses and was told their responses would be kept completely confidential.

The major difference between the two groups came in their success stories: Those who expected to share their stories were significantly more likely to mention how other people had contributed to their accomplishments.

The researchers, Roy Baumeister and Stacey Ilko, describe this phenomenon as “shallow gratitude,” speculating that the subjects may not have truly believed that the other people deserved their recognition but felt social pressure to cite their help.

“Had they really felt strongly grateful for the others’ help,” they write, “these acknowledgements would presumably have shown up in their private accounts as well.”

So is today’s literary gratitude actually quite shallow? One way to find out could be to start pulling original manuscripts off writers’ computers and out of their desk drawers. If Baumeister and Ilko’s findings are any indication, we may find that while published acknowledgements go on for pages, first drafts may be thankless.

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