Dedications (they’re what you need)

This is a post about book dedications. Which is why it seems appropriate to title it in a way that will only be meaningful to a select group of readers (Brits of a certain age who will now be cursing me for the earworm. Sorry!).

For many authors, dedications are often a private message publicly spoken. To S, or To Philip will be meaningful to S/Philip, one hopes, but it’s still a private word, one to one, the reader excluded.

Then there are the personal dedications that are a bit more public facing. An explicit thanks, a message of love. Sometimes more. This is what John Steinbeck put in East of Eden:

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What kind of things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts – the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.
JOHN

John Steinbeck, doing more in the dedication than most writers can manage in an entire novel.

Sometimes dedications are a quite blatant extension of the performance of writing. PG Wodehouse is the acknowledged master here, as almost everywhere else:

To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.

but I have a soft spot for Lemony Snicket, who runs a brilliantly macabre series of dedications to his inevitably deceased love through A Series of Unfortunate Events. I like The Penultimate Peril:

For Beatrice –
No one could extinguish my love,
or your house

And of course you can use a dedication to settle a score as Alfie Kohn does in No Contest: The Case against Competition:

Let me note, finally, that most of the research for this book was done in the libraries of Harvard University, the size of whose holdings is matched only by the school’s determination to restrict access to them. I am delighted to have been able to use these resources, and it hardly matters that I was afforded this privilege only because the school thought I was someone else.

Then there is the game-changer than leaves everyone else standing, particularly the typesetter:

Dedication

TO

PETER SCHWED

(Of the firm of Simon and Schuster)

DEAR PETE,

I have rather gone off dedications these last forty years or so. To hell with them about sums up my attitude. Today, when I write a book, it’s just a book, with no trimmings.

It was not always so. Back at the turn of the century I and the rest of the boys would as soon have gone out without our spats as allowed a novel of ours to go out practically naked, as you might say. The dedication was the thing on which we spread ourselves. I once planned a book which was to consist entirely of dedications, but abandoned the idea because I could not think of a dedication for it.

We went in for variety in those days. When you opened a novel, you never knew what you were going to get. It might be the curt take-it-or-leave-it dedication:

 

TO J. SMITH

 

the somewhat warmer

 

To My Friend

PERCY BROWN

 

or one of those cryptic dedications with a bit of poetry shoved in underneath in italics, like

 

TO F.B.O.

Stark winds 

And sunset over the moors. 

Why? 

Whither? 

Whence? 

And the sound of distant drums…

J. FRED MUGGS

Lower-Smattering-on-the-Wissel, 1912

 

or possibly, if we were feeling a bit livery, the nasty dedication:

 

TO THE CRITICS

THESE PEARLS

 

It was all great fun and kept our pores open and brought the roses to our cheeks, but most authors have given it up. Inevitably a time came when there crept into their minds the question “What is there in this for me?”  I know it was so in my case. “What is Wodehouse getting out of this?”  I asked myself, and the answer, as far as I could see, was, “Not a ruddy thing.”

When the eighteenth-century writer inserted on Page One something like

 

To

THE MOST NOBLE AND PUISSANT

LORD KNUBBLE OF KNOPP

From

HIS VERY HUMBLE SERVANT

THE AUTHOR

My Lord.

It is with inexpressible admiration for your lordship’s transcendent gifts that the poor slob who now addresses your lordship presents to your lordship this trifling work, so unworthy of your lordship’s distinguished consideration

he expected to clean up. Lord Knubble was his patron and could be relied on, if given the old oil in liberal doses, to come through with at least a couple of guineas. But where does the modern author get off? He plucks—let us say—P. B. Biffen from the unsung millions and makes him immortal, and what does Biffen do in return? He does nothing. He just stands there. If he is like all the Biffens I know, the author won’t get so much as a lunch out of it.

Nevertheless, partly because I know I shall get a very good lunch out of you but principally because you told Jack Goodman that you thought Bertie Wooster Sees It Through was better than War and Peace I inscribe this book

 

TO PETER SCHWED

TO MY FRIEND PETER SCHWED

TO P.S.

Half a league 

Half a league 

Half a league 

Onward 

With a hey-nonny-nonny 

And a hot cha-cha

P. G. WODEHOUSE

Colney Hatch, 1954

 

Not just a genius dedication (for Bertie Wooster Sees It Through) but sums up the history of the blasted things, thus saving me doing so.

I’m thinking about this as I move into edits on Flight of Magpies – mostly because the dedication bit is generally easier than actual work, and blogging is easier than both.

Dedications aren’t compulsory. Some people never do them. Others do a few and then stop. I like to dedicate, and when I think of the people I love, everyone I owe, I fear it will take an entire publishing career to work my way through them all.

But it’s important to me that each dedication should be meaningful, matching the person to the book. My friend and invaluable crit partner/life guru had to wait till my fourth book, Think of England, for her dedication because that was the right book for her. I want to dedicate one to my in-laws but one without seriously filthy sex in it, so they can share it with their friends without cringing. Sadly, I have a dearth of books without seriously filthy sex (specifically, one, and I already dedicated it to my own parents) so I fear the in-laws will be waiting for a while.

I didn’t have to think hard about the dedication for Flight of Magpies as it will fulfil another dedication function not listed above: the apology. Whereby hangs a tale.  The thing is, right, I sort of accidentally, you know, not really thinking and all that, totally not on purpose, but I kind of borrowed my friend’s surname (a bit) for, not to put too fine a point on it, one of my heroes. Note: it’s really embarrassing going round to a couple’s house for dinner and having to admit that you’ve used one of their surnames for a romance hero. Responses may include, ‘Hang on, did you write a romance novel about my boyfriend?’, ‘What’s wrong with my surname?’ and ‘So, about the sex scenes…’ You may also find your so-called friends referring to your lovingly crafted imaginative work of total fiction as ‘the book about Mark.’ (IT IS NOT ABOUT MARK.) Generally, I would advise against doing this at all, and you can spare yourself the trouble of a dedication. Sadly, it’s too late for me.

So the next one will be dedicated to my friends

For your own HEA

and the unauthorised loan of a surname. (It was an *accident*, goddammit.)

I think that covers everything.

9 replies
  1. laneswift
    laneswift says:

    First off, brilliant post. Second, Flight of Magpies? I can’t wait! And third, the surname! Oh dear. Yes, I feel your discomfit. But thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Marian Perera
    Marian Perera says:

    I once decided that my books would be dedicated to people whom I admired and who had a great influence on my life, but who are dead now. Three books into the series and I’ve run out, which says a good deal for the longevity of my family and friends but which leaves me kind of stumped.

    Reply

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