July 6, 2011 | by Anna North
Anyone who wants to study writers’ idiosyncrasies need look no further than their acknowledgments. One contemporary author thanks her therapist, another his probation officer, a third someone he calls the “Infamous Frankie G.” In the backs of books I’ve found shout-outs to the Ship Manager of HM Frigate Unicorn; a book on Satanism; and an ice hotel. But alongside the quirky is also the heartfelt. I’ve encountered declarations of love—“my children, my jewels”; “without you, I’d be sunk”; “not only the most supportive parents a writer could ask for but the most loving, kind, and inspiring people I know.” One set of thank-yous closes with the code IALYAAT, which I hope means, “I Always Love You At All Times.”
Acknowledgments also offer an all-too-rare view of the writer as actual human being. We often think we’re seeing the author’s real self when we read her fiction, but as any author who’s ever been asked what happened after she fled her family of international superspies and threw in her lot with a group of itinerant circus performers knows only too well, this is a delusion. The acknowledgments at the back of a novel are tantalizing because they’re often the only true thing amid a pack of lies. And at the end of a really great book, how wonderful to recognize that it was written not by a monolith or a beam of white light or the manifestation of the goddess Athena, but by a living, breathing person who remembered to thank her agent.
At least, how wonderful for some. As a person come relatively recently to the literary world, I’ve made several assumptions about acknowledgments that have turned out to be wrong. First, I’ve always assumed that everybody wants to read long acknowledgments. I want a glimpse, however illusory, into the author’s personal life; I want to know who her readers were and who her best friend is and who let her stay in their house one summer even though she was anxious and surly and didn’t do dishes. A little research, however, shows my predilections aren’t necessarily shared. The journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, for instance, came in for some ribbing from Gawker for her thank-yous, which began with the phrase “a personal literary project like this has a long trajectory,” and then launched into a long trajectory of their own, stretching over four pages.
Emily Gould (writing under the name Emily G.) penned a particularly biting and entertaining takedown of the long acknowledgment, as practiced by Chuck Klosterman and Steve Almond. She exhorts writers to avoid nicknames: “The only reason anyone wants their name in the acks is to help them get jobs in the future, and if you refer to them only as ‘Young Bull Patterson,’ (Steve) their goals will not be furthered, unless their goals are rodeo-related.” She illustrates why they might want to refrain from thanking God: “Klosterman thanks God for helping him to write a shortish, go-nowhere, cutesy book about a brief road trip he took to rock stars' death sites. This is kind of like R. Kelly thanking God for helping him to write a song called ‘Sex Weed,’ except less hilarious.” And she winds up with the following advice:
I just want to plead anyone out there who might be about to publish a book to have pity on the world, look out for your own best interests, and keep your acknowledgments spare or nonexistent. Your readers, trust me, will be thanking YOU.
Admittedly, it’s hard to stick to the rules, even if you wrote them. Gould ignored some of her own advice when she published her first book five years later, And the Heart Says Whatever. Her acknowledgments do spill over onto a second page and include some of her helpmeets’ first names (which is a bit more transparent than using their initials—a tactic employed by some secretive contemporary writers). However, she doesn’t thank God, nor does she go through an exhaustive list of everyone she’s ever known. Instead, she writes, “Thanks to my friends. It pains me not to list you all, but I tried and then got too paranoid about leaving someone out and offending him or her.” This turns out to be a common anxiety. Andrew Altschul, author of Lady Lazarus and Deus Ex Machina, told me, “I start keeping a list of people to acknowledge long before I send a book to my editor, because I worry I’ll forget to thank someone who's helped me in some meaningful way. It’s important to me—people who have given time, effort, advice, et cetera really deserve to be acknowledged for it.”
This challenged another of my rookie assumptions: that authors are always excited about writing their acknowledgments. A popular fantasy topic among never-published writers is whom you’re going to thank (or pointedly refrain from thanking) on the back page of your book, and it’s easy to assume that experienced writers relish the chance to list all their buddies a second or even a third time. In fact, the process appears to inspire as much fear as it does excitement. And Gould’s tactic of avoiding the friend list may be a smart one. Altschul shares it:
I usually don’t acknowledge people just because they’re my friends or I like them, something that’s gotten me in trouble once or twice—for example, my wife isn’t thanked in my first book, because by the time we met I was nearly done writing it. But I made it up to her the next time around: my second novel is dedicated to her.
Acknowledgments, of course, are not just—or even primarily—for the reader. They’re personal notes to the writers’ friends, loved ones, and colleagues, and it behooves him or her to check the list carefully before sending it off. Parsimony may be a good strategy here—thanking only those people who, for instance, actually read the manuscript reduces one’s chances of leaving somebody out, and eliminates the need to determine which friends are really close and influential enough to get a back-of-the-book nod.
Of course, all this rests on one giant assumption—that acknowledgments are separate from a work of fiction, that they, unlike everything forgoing, are real. Mark Danielewski turns this on its head with the following cryptic note in the “credits” section of his novel House of Leaves: “Special thanks to the Talmor Zedactur Depositary [sic] for providing a VHS copy of ‘Exploration #4.’” Exploration #4 is a short film made by the characters in the book, and unlikely to exist on VHS anywhere in this, our world—the Talmor Zedactur Depositary appears to be similarly fictional. Some readers speculate that the name is a family joke, as TZD are apparently the initials of the author’s father. Another says, simply, “odviously a clever fiction but still makes u wonder doesn’t it.” And perhaps this is the mark of a truly great acknowledgment—not that it satisfies with a comforting portrayal of the author as ordinary person, but that it maintains his or her mystique, making you wonder until the next book comes out.
Anna North is the author of the novel America Pacifica and a staff writer at Jezebel.