Giving Thanks, Or, the Trouble with Acknowledgments

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 2nd, 2009

Thanksgiving got me thinking about acknowledgments pages in novels, and my mixed reaction to them. Initially, my ambivalence confused me; I’m all for expressing appreciation and I love the generosity of spirit expressed in these pages. Why, then, do I sometimes wish authors would put those thankful words in a handwritten note to their intended recipients instead of into the novel?

Dedications, I understand. They are special, they are personal, they are brief. They generally preserve an author’s mystery and privacy, while still reaching out to someone special. And I have no quarrel with nonfiction acknowledgments; those are de rigeur. It would be, at the very least, unprofessional to ignore the sources and resources behind the research process. Acknowledgments pages for a fiction title, on the other hand, are trickier. I’m of two minds about them.

Here’s what happens when I come upon the acknowledgments pages of a book:

A) How thoughtful! Publicly thanking all the people who have helped one along the journey of a novel is a lovely thing to do. And it’s a little window into the personal life of the author. It’s fun to read these tidbits, and especially wonderful to know who edited the book. (Side note here: I wish publishers included the editor’s name on the copyright page. So interesting!)

B) Ack! Publicly thanking all the people who have helped one along the journey of a novel is so … public. And, it’s a little window into the personal life of the author. (Meaning, Wow, am I kicked right out of the world of the story and its magic.)

Mind B, I’ve discovered after much rumination, is disconcerted by two main issues:

First, acknowledgments pages have the potential to project a—certainly innocent and obviously unintentional—self-congratulatory air. When I mentioned the topic of this post to Flying Pig staffer Kelly Dousevicz, she succinctly observed, "They often read like an award acceptance speech, without the award." Especially disconcerting is the experience of reading acknowledgments pages before reading the novel itself. Designers, please don’t undermine your authors this way; acknowledgments belong at the back of the book, where the reader has a sense of the author’s accomplishment, and a chance to agree that the novel has earned its acceptance speech.

What’s paradoxical is that the purpose of acknowledgments pages is the opposite of self-congratulation; authors are self-deprecating, grateful, trying to pass around and share the appreciation. But I’m not sure the public expression of that gratitude serves the book itself, because of the second concern of Mind B: the revelation of the all-too-human wizard behind the curtain.

Acknowledgements pages can have the subtle psychological effect of undercutting the authority of the storyteller by being a little too revealing, by broadcasting an author’s private uncertainties about the work, self-consciousness as an artist, or by laying bare the scaffolding of craft. In this age of direct contact with fans, and Twitter and Facebook updates where personal and professional lines are ever more blurred, I think there is something to be said for a certain amount of reserve (not that I achieve that myself; I simply admire it). Many of the most revered writers are those who retain some privacy and mystery, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a coincidence.

The world of a book, after all, is a private conversation between author and reader. Acknowledgments pages break that spell by bringing in the outside world. When agents and managers start to appear in acknowledgments, things get even weirder: here comes the world of commerce and deal-making, crashing the story party.

I’m not as anti-acknowledgments as this post might make me sound. I just think it’s difficult to achieve the right balance of brevity, humility, gratitude, and self-restraint.  Don’t get me wrong; if I wrote a novel, I’m pretty sure I would be tempted to write Proustian acknowledgments, wanting to thank the village it took to rope me to my chair to work that hard, and who put their own hard work and amazing creative efforts into making the book its best possible incarnation. I put acknowledgments in my first picture book, and picture books don’t generally include acknowledgments. So I do understand the impulse, and sympathize. But I’m starting to notice acknowledgments "sticking out" from the book in a different way than they used to, and am trying to figure out why this bothers me.

How do *you* feel about acknowledgments pages in novels? Is it just me?

70 thoughts on “Giving Thanks, Or, the Trouble with Acknowledgments

  1. Julius Lester

    It seems that some readers want the power to tell writers what should and should not be a part of their books. We writers would love to have the power to tell readers how we want our books read. One of my ex-wives always read the end of a book first, then pages in the middle, and only then would she start at the beginning. If we had not had other more pressing issues, the way she read books would have been grounds enough for divorce. Sometimes, it is editors or copy editors who want the acknowledgments at the beginning of the book. In one of my adult novels, The Autobiography of God, I had put my Author’s Notes at the back. The copy editor moved them to the front, and fought me when I insisted they return to the back, which they did. If reading the acknowledgments is going to interfere with your reading experience, why read them. Just as one of my exes insisted on reading books the way she wanted to,no one is is being compelled to read to read acknowledgments. Just as one chooses which books to read, one can also choose what to read inside the book. Putting the names of editors on the copyright page assumes that editors’ contributions to a book have been essential to the book. Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it isn’t. Having the editor’s name on the copyright page gives the editor coequal authorship, and that is simply wrong. All editors are not good at their jobs.

  2. Jess

    Feiwel and Friends often has a page at the end of their books listing staff who (presumably) worked on the book. I’m looking at a copy of Victoria Forester’s The Girl Who Could Fly, and the last page before the endpapers lists things like publisher, editor-in-chief, creative director, and on throuh a list of 11 people. I think that’s a nice touch, and it’s in an unobtrusive place. Personally, I’ll read an ack page, especially if it’s more than just a list of names, and I prefer it at the end of the book.

  3. Joanne Fritz

    Great post, Elizabeth. I always wondered why the book designer’s name is included on the copyright page, but not the editor’s name. A poster named j commented above that an editor’s job is to be invisible, so the name SHOULDN’T appear in the book (unless the author chooses to thank them). Interesting point. If I ever get a book published, I’d want to acknowledge the editor. I love to read acks, but definitely vote for putting them at the end. And I agree with Sue Corbett — I’ve been completely turned off by long acks that include the author’s barrista or dry cleaner or something. Could they really be as important to the gestation of the book as the editor or critique group? The best acks are concise. I really like the way some authors thank “the team at (name of publishing house).” That way you include all those people who worked so hard on the book, without having to go on and on (and you don’t have to worry about forgetting someone).

  4. Terry Golson

    I’m an author – picture books and cookbooks. I love writing the acks. It’s fun, it’s a gift to my helpers, and it gives my readers a little insight into what went goes on in the creation of the books. Don’t assume that the author doesn’t also privately thank the people mentioned. I do! I even write handwritten notes! But, Elizabeth, you’re right in that it can be overdone and look less than sincere. Even acks should be edited 🙂

  5. TA

    This was very interesting to me…when I wrote my first book, I wanted to thank my editor, but I was told that, per their policy, I couldn’t. In subsequent books, with different publishers, I just assumed that was standard so I didn’t try to thank my editor. I guess I should have checked! Feeling guilty… I like reading other people’s acks, and I think having them at the end is reasonable.

  6. shelftalker elizabeth

    Hey, as I think I’ve said, thanks are wonderful and deserved. Many acknowledgments are written well and don’t fall into the “acceptance speech” category. (Just read a very good one tonight in an ARC, in fact.) I’m not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater; just the bathwater. I do read hundreds of books a year. Maybe it’s the sheer cumulative experience of reading so many ack pages that has caused my uber-awareness of what I perceive to be their ins and outs, ups and downs.

  7. Peter Glassman, Books of Wonder

    Although as a picture book author, I’ve never had the opportunity to write an acknowledgment (no room in a picture book!), as a reader I generally enjoy them. And, I must say, it has meant the world to me when an author has mentioned me in their acknowledgment. As to acknowledgments being an acceptance speech without the reward, I have to disagree — getting a book published is in and of itself a reward. Considering the vast number of unpublished manuscripts out there, I consider each book published a very high award indeed and give my kudos to whoever has been able to see their work published. Of course, like all awards, I don’t agree that all are deserving — but that’s what makes horse races! And, thank heaven, variety on bookstore shelves!

  8. Lauren Baratz-Logsted

    Thanks, E-beth, if I may call you that. Mom is special. I do understand about some Acks being annoyingly long/self-congratulatory/over the top. But sometimes, it’s just all about Mom (and my 9yo – I want her to have those Acks to help remember my love for her after I turn up my toes.) Really, terrific blog post – got me thinking about why I do what I do.

  9. Susan E. Wigget

    As a reader, I skip Acknowledgements. As a writer, I’ve never thought about including them in a novel or short story collection, but I imagine writing Acknowledgements for my travel memoir, mentioning everyone I met in India and Nepal.

  10. Lauren Baratz-Logsted

    I like reading and writing Acks but I still enjoyed this post very much and do prefer Acks to be placed at the back of the book. Some Acks are so lengthy, I wonder if the writer had a few glasses of wine before starting. For myself, I always Ack those who helped with a specific book and a few key family members. In fact, Ack-ing Mom, which makes her insanely happy, is one of the main reasons I write Acks. She’s 86, soon to be 87. I can’t make her live longer and I can’t take the physical pains and emotional sadness of aging away from her, but I can write “Thanks go to…Lucille Baratz – for keeping copies of my books in her purse to show doctors, waitresses, bank tellers, and random strangers, and for being my mom,” as I did in my last book, and know that every time she looks at it she smiles. Thanks, Mom.

  11. Meredith

    Tor Books does include the editor’s name, I believe. I generally skip acknowledgements since unless I know the people involved, it quickly turns into a laundry list of unknown names. But I don’t mind it being there for the people who do want it — like the ISBN.

  12. Nancy

    I think Elizabeth’s point is simply that acknowledgments should be as concise and and as well-written as the book. I’m always really excited to see acknowledgments (especially if I loved the book) mostly because it allows you a bit more time to spend with the author and their words, and it’s a chance to hear what their “thank you” voice sounds like, and if it’s much different from the voice of the novel. As an editor, I must say that it can sometimes a bit tricky to edit someone’s acknowledgements page, which may account for some of the more lengthy ones. I also agree that the ack. page should always be at the end. Always.

  13. mm

    Foreign countries have more “credits” than we do. They often include editor, designer and publisher names. It’s merely a US convention, and one that won’t change anytime soon. If even one house began to include such a thing, it would face ridicule from within the industry, though I think the reading public would not care, or, probably, notice. Too bad for editors, in my opinion, who fought hard in the first place for that book to be published–no matter how much actual editing they did!

  14. j

    An editor’s job is to be invisible. I find it so distasteful to see an editorial credit on the copyright page. As an editor at a major house, I don’t understand why one would take even a tiny bit of the credit away from the author just to boost your own ego. If you did your job correctly, no one should even be aware that you exist–why shove yourself into the limelight? I only know of one editor who insists on a credit, and really it doesn’t engender respect and is looked upon as a sign that this editor’s work is too much about the editor and not the author. It’s another matter if the author chooses to thank you. After all, the point is that it’s their book.

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