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?

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