I don’t remember when I first started reading the acknowledgements in books. Perhaps I always did, at a cursory level anyway. But there was a point when polite reading made way for full-blown obsession. Like a dirty little habit. Some days I feel like the acknowledgements should be in a sealed section, so eager is my anticipation to tear open the page.
Relatively speaking, acknowledgements are a fairly new addition to books. In the classics, there are dedications only—short and brief. (Although, E. E. Cummings famously dedicated his book of poetry No Thanks to the fourteen publishing houses that turned down the collection.)
Yet now, the absence of an acknowledgements section is the exception, implying a choice not to partake. Ann Patchett, for example, prefers private gratitude, rather than a public display via the back pages of a book. If nothing else, she joked with author Henriette Lazaridis, a private inscription saves authors having a book forever tagged with the reminder of a friendship that is no longer.
In Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel Queenie, the hardback acknowledgements take up three pages. When it came time for the paperback addition she found the names of people she hadn’t managed to hold on to since that time. A lot can happen post-publication, it seems. Yet perhaps Patchett was wrong (even if her comment was in jest): for the paperback version, Carty-Williams added friends, but didn’t delete. The gratitude was still there. Whatever happened to the friendship, they still belonged.
As an emerging writer I look to the acknowledgements to understand the dynamic of writers groups, of agents, of editors, of publishers. It’s a kind of education for the uninitiated. The books I enjoy most often include overlapping names: I scour these pages for clues, like looking through the keyhole into a secret literary club.
But acknowledgements are a story in their own right. Suspense abounds. In his 2011 debut The Ottoman Motel, Christopher Currie took the opportunity to propose in the acknowledgements: ‘To my favourite, to the reason I live my life, Leesa Wockner, who, if she reads this, I hope will agree to marry me, despite the number of commas in this sentence.’ Mystery solved, she said yes.
The books I enjoy most often include overlapping names: I scour these pages for clues, like looking through the keyhole into a secret literary club.
In the acknowledgements, writers (usually) break out from the style of writing that has sustained it to that point. Previously pared back sentences, restrained and precise. Instead, we see adjectives galore. Cliches abound. There is no restraint; it’s glorious. ‘Acknowledgements tend to get soggy when writers talk about their significant others,’ writes Maria Tumarkin at the back of Axiomatic. ‘Too intimate and smug at once… I always look away when it gets to this point, second-hand embarrassment is what it’s called I think…’ I don’t look away; I love that authors trust us enough to bring us into their world, if only for a brief moment. The contrast between the words that precede a conclusion of a book and the words that follow it.
As much I love them, I resist the urge to jump ahead and read the acknowledgements before I finish the final pages of a book, in case they change my perception of the text, the characters, their outcomes.
At the end of her recent novel The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall writes: ‘Toni Jordan is a novel whisperer who first said, “Maybe just [insert spoiler here]?” and opened this book into something new.’ The book is a heart-pounding thriller, and my anxiety levels couldn’t have handled knowing there was even a moment, at any point during the writing process, that the outcome wasn’t known (even if the die was well and truly cast by the time I was turning the pages). So too, in Christian White’s acknowledgements for his thriller The Wife and The Widow, we find out that it was Summer, ‘best of wives, best of women,’ who told him who the killer should be. I learn about what it must be like to write with complete trust that the answers will appear.
It’s like having access to information that is not yours to possess—reading someone’s diary or eavesdropping. That it’s only half-formed, bite sized snippets makes it even more appealing. What was the ‘conversation that changed everything’? The thanks given to those who ‘know who they are’—who are they and what did they do?
It’s no doubt the same kind of feeling others might get when reaching the ‘Stars Without Make-up’ section while waiting at the supermarket checkout. A kind of sordid fascination where we get to peek behind the curtains.
There are distinct types of acknowledgements. Those that start with: This book could not have been written without on one end of the scale. The gushing thanks of debut novels, the shock of publication still visible on the page. On the other end, more common in established names, are straightforward, emotionless lists.
Then there are the more obscure references; variations of: Thank you to Professor Wimbley (‘Momo’), who patiently shared his knowledge of axolotls and the impact of paedomorphosis in 13th century Mexico. Niche. The specificity brings me more joy than it should.
In the acknowledgement for The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry asks forgiveness from children everywhere for dedicating his book to a grown-up. His excuse is that Leon Werth is the ‘best friend I have in the world’. But then he changes his mind. ‘I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember it. And so I correct my dedication: To Leon Werth, When he was a little boy.’
Acknowledging (though I have used the words interchangeably) is different to thanking. Acknowledgement is a recognition. The word itself comes from the blend of 15th century Middle English—aknow and knowlechen—meaning ‘to admit or show one’s knowledge’. And perhaps this is why I find these pages so fascinating. There is an element of admitting hidden truths, of confession.
These beautiful words on the page and the impact they have on the reader were not a given. At some point, there was doubt. There was work.
Melissa Febos, in Abandon Me, writes: ‘Making darkness visible is a lonely process, but I have never done it alone’. ‘Writing is hard and isolating,’ writes Ewa Ramsey in The Morbids, ‘and forces you to spend too much time in your own head, but…’ Always the but. But it takes a village, we’re reminded constantly.
‘Thank you for bearing with me…’ we hear in many different guises. For pushing me in the right direction. For championing the work. For giving me my confidence back. For enduring. The illusion is shattered—that these beautiful words on the page and the impact they have on the reader were not a given. That at some point, there was doubt. There was work.
There are thanks for those who babysat kids and drove them to school. Thanks to husbands and children who remained patient and good-humoured during the writing process. ‘Thank you to my family for putting up with me staring into space a lot, and only half-listening to most of what they say,’ writes Sally Hepworth in The Good Sister. I realise it’s the women writers who often aren’t just thanking but apologising. For letting work take up the physical and emotional space that would otherwise be given to others. My data set is clearly skewed and my bookshelf, with my own preferences for particular authors and genres, is hardly a valid sample size, but I grab some more male authors to even out my research. Thanks are given. Family members are named, but there are no hidden apologies in their gratitude. No thinly veiled guilt. Simply acknowledgement of love.
Acknowledgements speak to what it means to inhabit the world of writing, to spend time with characters who are created and what impact they have on our lives. What it means to straddle two worlds.
‘I miss you,’ the final words in The Girls by Chloe Higgins. ‘I still miss you,’ the last page of Jessie Cole’s Staying. These words were my undoing. Though I felt the loss and grief of these memoirs viscerally, it wasn’t until the acknowledgements that I felt almost winded. Because no matter what words we find and what order we put them in, it does not stop the missing. Nothing can.
I realise it’s the women writers who often aren’t just thanking but apologising. For letting work take up the physical and emotional space that would otherwise be given to others.
I have found friends hidden in acknowledgements. ‘Is this you?’ I type in a message alongside a cheeky iPhone snap to a school friend Jazz. ‘It’s me!’ she writes back; the photo of her name in the back of Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo. Where did you meet? How did you become friends? How did you help? Tell me everything, I want to write.
In Clare Bowditch’s Your Own Kind of Girl, an acknowledgement: ‘For allowing me to write in your quiet houses and empty offices: Berry and Danny…’ I am in Berry and Danny’s home when I blurt this out, in one single, breathless sentence, the words joining together like a confession. ‘Yes!’ Berry says, her face beaming with love and pride for her friend. A house no longer quiet, the offices no longer empty. My children are in every room, baking, cutting, colouring in, taking up space. I wonder if our presence has broken the spell required to craft magic, but as we leave with warm cookies and tiny hands still sticky from glue I realise the invitation to create (words, cookies, popsicle-stick houses) is in each room still.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is filled with sentences formed with such beauty that I gasped from their impact. In the acknowledgements, Vuong thanks the artists and musicians he leaned on repeatedly while writing. Whitney Houston. Joan Didion. Sufjan Stevens. Jenny Offill. I reluctantly place the finished book back on my bedside table, not yet ready to let my connection with Ocean Vuong go, and pick up Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Little breadcrumbs left by authors letting us know which direction to take next.
Acknowledgements have become a part of preserving the historical and cultural context of a book and the time in which it was written. They are an exploration of relationships, friendships and family. There is as much about gratitude and hope as there is about laying bare heartache and hard work. The things that sustain us and the ties that bind us. Acknowledgements capture what is important to us as writers and readers and as humans.