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The Story Behind the Story: An Appreciation of Authors’ Acknowledgments

By posted at 6:00 am on January 9, 2012 18

At a reading in Cambridge this past fall, Ann Patchett said in passing that she doesn’t believe in acknowledgements. During the question and answer period, I asked her why. She explained that she feels it’s better to thank the important people in your life by giving them a copy of your novel in which you’ve written a personalized inscription. If nothing else, she added, a private inscription saves the author from the possible future embarrassment of having her book forever tagged with the reminder of a friendship that has faded away. But Patchett’s deeper concern seemed to be that the handwritten acknowledgement was more sincere, free of the performative element of a thank you that will be publicly reproduced every time the book is printed.

cover Inscribing my own copy of Run that evening, Patchett wished me luck in deciding what to do with “this acknowledgement thing” when it comes time for my own novel’s back page in a little over a year. Indeed, what might have once seemed to me like a purely joyous opportunity now seems like a potential minefield, a hazard of etiquette and emotions. It’s so easy to put a foot wrong. What if you omit a key player in a workshop? What if you go on too long and risk looking like someone who couldn’t have managed without an enormous entourage? What if you feature someone prominently in your list and later have a falling out? Perhaps that last one is among the worst, beaten only by the dedication to an eventual ex-spouse.

cover cover There was a time when acknowledgements were brief and rare. There was even a time when dedications sufficed. Charlotte Brontë signed Jane Eyre off to Thackeray, plain and simple, while Anne was even sparer, offering no dedication at all to Agnes Gray. One could argue that the sisters’ need to conceal their identity led them to be circumspect in their gratitude. Maybe that’s why someone as confident in his place among men of letters as Wilkie Collins could dedicate The Woman in White to “Bryan Walter Procter from one of his younger brethren in literature who sincerely values his friendship and who gratefully remembers many happy hours spent in his house.” Or why Collins’ friend Dickens could say that Bleak House is “Dedicated, as a remembrance of our friendly union, to my companions in the guild of literature and art.”

cover Of course, there’s nothing plain and simple about even the most seemingly simple dedication. Collins’ to Procter can be seen as a strategic move to ally himself with someone whose name hardly made it to posterity but who, at the time, held some reputation in Collins’ world. And Brontë’s nod to Thackeray may have been purely reverential but looked to contemporary readers like proof of a romantic connection. Then there’s George Eliot’s lack of any dedication to Middlemarch. Looking at that unaccompanied title page now, it’s tempting to see her direct stride into the novel as a move of extreme confidence in the masterpiece that follows.

cover Though novels went along for more than a century without them, acknowledgements have now become an expected part of a novel’s presentation — along with the reader’s guide and the about the author page. Which is why I was astonished to turn to the end of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister this summer and find this: “I’m not sure if anyone reads the acknowledgements, but I hope so because without the following people, this novel would never have been written or published.” She’s a first-time author, but still: doesn’t she know? Everyone reads the acknowledgements. In fact, for many of us, the first thing we do when we pull a book off the store shelf is to flip to the back. The writers among us might be searching for the agent or the editor we can query, or we might be seeking our own name in the list. But we certainly read the acknowledgements for the drama and the human story revealed therein. Some acknowledgements are works of art, expressing with finesse and sincerity the gratitude for a supportive surrogate family, a patient and understanding spouse and kids, a best friend who saw the writer through difficulties hinted at sufficiently so that we can glimpse a bit of the author’s life. At their best, acknowledgements can be finely-wrought short stories with the author as protagonist.

cover At least one acknowledgements has made me cry. What makes Robin Black’s acknowledgements for If I Loved You I Would Tell You This so moving is the simple fact that she hasn’t let up on the rigor of her prose in writing them. The language is just as careful and precise here as it is in the collection. Black’s thanks run to three full pages and have the narrative arc of a story — fitting for the story collection they conclude. She begins typically enough, thanking her agent, her editor, and her publishers, moving on to the various institutions that supported her, and then to individual readers, friends, and colleagues. Finally, she gets serious, taking in turn her mother, her children, and her husband. Some might say this is a bit over the top, but when you reach this point, you realize that the pleasant bath of thanks you’ve been lolling in contains quite serious emotions. It’s almost like eavesdropping, reading these last paragraphs, and I won’t quote them here out of a sense that to do so would be somehow nosy — despite the fact that every single copy of this strong-selling book ends with these words.

When Ann Patchett speaks about acknowledgements, it’s clear that she’s not opposed to expressing gratitude, but is instead against its public expression. If the gratitude is sincere, convey it directly to the person who deserves it; why does the rest of the world need to know? I can see her point. There is nothing so transparent as the message that hitches the writer’s wagon to a more illustrious star. But I hope this doesn’t mean that writers who choose to express their thanks in public, as I am likely to do, are inherently insincere. Because I imagine that by the time I’m in a position to write up my thanks, I will feel a strong need to shout them from the rooftops.

cover cover Every book comes with a second narrative, that of its creation. I keep going to those framing pages to see what that other story is. Sometimes, the discovery is unsettling, as with this eerie dedication to Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs: “To Jon Cook, who saw them too.” And sometimes the discovery is sweet. In the step from White Teeth to On Beauty, Zadie Smith reveals a lovely transition in her own life. In 2000, for White Teeth, Smith says she is “also indebted to the bright ideas and sharp eyes of the following people” and includes “Nicholas Laird, fellow idiot savant” among them. By 2005, she dedicates On Beauty to “my dear Laird.” There are no acknowledgements.

Image credit: Editor B/Flickr





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18 Responses to “The Story Behind the Story: An Appreciation of Authors’ Acknowledgments”

  1. Philip Graham
    at 9:01 am on January 9, 2012

    Nice essay. My favorite acknowledgements is Paul Theroux’s short story “Acknowledgements,” from his story collection World’s End. Ostensively an acknowledgements of an obscure book of literary biography of an equally obscure English poet, it is also a coded secret tale of intrigue and murder.

  2. Sharanya
    at 10:18 am on January 9, 2012

    This has been on my mind quite a bit. My first book, a collection of poems from a micro-press with almost no distribution, contained a dedication using a first initial and no acknowledgments page. But in the time since, I have begun to feel deeply indebted to a number of people on a professional basis, and thus feel it is correct to express my gratitude them in my next book. Still, how to give thanks to associates and not give thanks to friends? “Friends” are, the sad reality is, a shifting population. I haven’t figured out how to manage this potential minefield yet.

  3. Shelley
    at 11:21 am on January 9, 2012

    What you want to acknowledge is the people who believed in your writing before you got published.

  4. Henriette Power
    at 11:30 am on January 9, 2012

    Philip, thanks for that reference. I’ll be sure to dig that story up. It sounds perfect in light of the essay. Sharanya, it’s easy to see how it could become quite a long list, yes? Friends whose support might not have been writing-specific but who made us want to keep at it, or writer friends who fall more into the associates category, or, as Shelley says, people who supported you when no one knew you’d have an audience besides them. Or all of those together. It has to be a tough decision between acknowledgements that reflect the euphoria of the publishing moment and those that might make more sense over time and over the course of an author’s career. One can see Patchett’s view that the best ones are, in fact, communicated privately.

  5. Reader/writer of acks
    at 12:47 pm on January 9, 2012

    I see a book’s dedication and its acknowledgments as serving completely different purposes. The dedication is generally focused on a single person important to the author’s private life. The acknowledgments page, yes, often includes the names of supportive friends and family, and Patchett might be onto something with her idea that those people might appreciate a personal inscription more, and that thanking them “in public” is only for the sake of the performance.

    But many acknowledgments express gratitude for the professionals who actually did some amount of work that allowed the writer to then complete hers. Arts colonies, organizations offering grant money, research assistants, editors of venues that previously published portions of the work, librarians, archivists, etc. These people/entities most often received no compensation for their effort in the book, and it’s not only nice for the author to thank them — it’s critical — otherwise, it might appear to a reader that the writer is taking credit for work or ideas that were not her own or taking the time/space crucial to the creative process as inconsequential.

  6. Maria Padian
    at 1:25 pm on January 9, 2012

    Nice essay; gave me a lot to think about.
    For me, bringing a novel into the world was like giving birth. I’d always imagined it as a solitary process, but was amazed at the support I received and how badly I needed that support. And like the nurses in the labor and delivery room, whom I couldn’t thank enough, the professionals and friends who helped me complete and publish my novels humbled me with their expertise, kindness and faith in my work. Thanking them publicly in a way that would endure with the pages was not self-serving: it was homage.
    Oh … and they also got inscribed copies with personal thanks.

  7. Kim Wright
    at 3:57 pm on January 9, 2012

    My problem with acknowledgements is that some of them are so over the top…. so excessively grateful that they all but imply the agent/editor/friend/colleague moved in with the writer during the creative process and supplied them with endless streams of inspiration and Earl Grey tea. I’m thinking of those that say things like “without whom this book would not exist” or “who believed in this story before I did” or even “who refused to let me quit.” I think it gives unpublished writers the wonky idea that agents and editors do more than they actually do. Where in truth writers often work long periods of time in isolation, without encouragement and – especially if its a first book – without knowing if the project will ever be finished, much less published.

  8. Mindy Withrow » Blog Archive » Clippings 29: For the love of reading and writing
    at 9:14 pm on January 9, 2012

    [...] intrigued to see Flavorwire’s list of 25 favorite epigraphs right after I saw this piece at The Millions giving some love to the art of author acknowledgements. “At their best, acknowledgements can be finely-wrought short stories with the author as [...]

  9. Kristel
    at 12:18 am on January 10, 2012

    I love Evelyn Waugh’s author’s note in Brideshead Revisited: “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.”

  10. Jenna Blum
    at 9:38 am on January 11, 2012

    There’s no right or wrong here, just a matter of preference. Yet I’ll confess I’m perplexed by the idea of keeping the ACKS, as my editor for THOSE WHO SAVE US called them, private. If you write a book, don’t you want everything in it to be for public consumption? For me, that very much includes thanking the people who so generously gave of their time and energy to help me write my novel. Writing the ACKS may have been, indeed, my favorite part.

  11. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 2:57 pm on January 11, 2012

    Great essay. I understand Patchett’s point, but it seems to me that it’s appropriate to publicly acknowledge the people who work behind the scenes. I didn’t have an acknowledgments page on my first book, because I was swayed by an essay wherein an author argued that acknowledgments pages are somehow crass, something akin to an awards speech in the absence of an award. But I regret not having had one now; so many people besides me worked to make that book successful, and it seems ungenerous not to publicly acknowledge them.

    Dedications are difficult. I’ve been dedicating all my books to my husband. I fear that if I start branching out to other people who are important to me, it’ll quickly turn into one of those things where if I dedicate a book to Important Person X, Important Person Y will wonder when her dedication’s coming and Important Person Z will feel secretly resentful. And then, because my work tends toward noir, there’s the question of content: if I dedicate a harrowing book to person X, will X wonder what I’m trying to tell them? The whole thing’s difficult to navigate.

  12. Robin Black
    at 11:31 am on January 13, 2012

    First off, thanks so much, Henriette, for your kind words. I’m glad those pages touched you.

    Personally, i would find it sad if everyone stopped writing acknowledgements. They are, themselves, a literary form and I think it’s a shame when any literary form becomes extinct.

    It seems to me to be a personal choice – for author and reader both. Don’t write them if you don’t want to. Don’t read them if they bug you. Unlike Academy Awards acceptance speeches, they can be easily skipped without missing the main event.

    I will say, my next ones will be much shorter. I had forty-eight years worth of support to acknowledge. Even on my lowest days, I don’t think it’ll be that long before book #2. (Knock wood.)

    Really interesting article, Henriette. Thanks again!

  13. E. P. Beaumont
    at 2:45 am on January 15, 2012

    It seems to me that acknowledgments are like bibliography: documentation of substantial contribution. Much like the credits that roll at the end of a film, they make note of the ‘cast and crew’ whose work behind the scenes helped to create the final product. That would include beta-readers, editors, book designers and cover artists. Those people did work, and whether or not they were paid money for it, it’s unethical to leave out their contribution. It’s particularly important to convey public thanks for colleagues or friends who volunteered their time and effort.

  14. Peter Spenser
    at 6:28 am on January 23, 2012

    “Everyone reads the acknowledgements.” What? Hey, are you listening? No, they don’t. I don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does. I used to, long ago, when I was young and foolish, but I stopped, long ago, when I realized what a waste of time it was. I certainly never encountered “the drama and the human story revealed therein.” In fact, I encountered no story there at all. What I found instead, time after time, was a boring list of cookie-cutter thank-you’s to a wide-ranging group of disparate people whom the author felt compelled—or coerced—to mention. “Some acknowledgements are works of art….” Maybe one in a million might be, but I never ran across one.

    Dedications, on the other hand, I will read. They certainly are where “the drama and the human story” can be found, often buried within an almost poetic obscurity that rewards a little investigation with a flood of emotion. Author Susanna Kearsley’s dedication of her novel, “The Rose Garden,” to her beloved deceased sister—they were best friends as children—still brings a tear to my eye: “For my sister, who, as always, has gone on a step ahead, and still dances in my memory and my heart.” Now that is a work of art.

  15. Amy
    at 12:38 pm on August 27, 2012

    As an avid reader and research librarian, I like acknowledgements. If I read a book that involved lots of research, I like to check the acknowledgement page to find out which libraries the author used to research the book. Occasionally, I learn of archival collections that I didn’t know about. And as others have noted, there are lots of people who contribute behind the scenes to a writer’s work, and thanking them publicly in the acknowledgements is just a nice and gracious thing to do.

  16. An Appreciation of Authors’ Acknowledgments – Todd Library: Featured Resources Blog
    at 1:59 pm on August 27, 2012

    [...] The Millions : The Story Behind the Story: An Appreciation of Authors’ Acknowledgments. [...]

  17. Helen DeWitt
    at 2:10 pm on August 27, 2012

    Late to the parade, but…

    Re public vs. private. Funnily enough, if you’re a writer the fact of publication may not be that big a deal. You have lots of books on your hard drive; one happened to catch the eye of an editor and get fed through the sausage machine. Hey presto! Your name is on an artifact available for sale. The difference between this book and all the others isn’t very interesting: this simply happened to catch an editor’s eye.

    If you’re a couple of degrees of separation from public presence, it’s different. Many people feel validated if they get a mention in acknowledgements of a book that made it into print. It mattered to my mother, for instance. Well, my mother has shown far more faith in my talent than anyone in the biz; in fact, my mother has subsidized all the people in the biz who went all hand-to-brow when they might have gone out hustling to get me some money to finish a book. I can’t name and shame, but I think my mother deserves public acknowledgement. As do the other subsidizers of the hand-to-brow league.

  18. E-book Formatting: Acknowledgments vs Dedication Pages | SaraWalker.net
    at 11:34 am on August 20, 2013

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