Cordelia Does Acknowledgments

In the fall of 2011 I faced the happy task of writing the acknowledgments page, and a dedication if I wanted one, for Companion to an Untold Story. I had worked my way through the copy editor’s suggestions, all typographical errors had been corrected, reference citations double-checked—the book was ready to move on to the next stage in production. In the writing of Companion, a book about the suicide of my friend Joel, I had spent years considering all manner of questions, but hadn’t thought about whom to acknowledge or whether a dedication was desirable. I had become faintly aware of the contemporary trend in acknowledgments, an outpouring of gratitude to a large cast of characters, but by and large I had paid little heed to these matters.

Best to take a look at how other authors approached this task before penning my own thanks, I thought, and I started to pull books down from my shelves.

Faulkner dedicated As I Lay Dying to Hal Smith on the copyright page. That was all. No acknowledgments. William Styron’s memoir of madness, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, is dedicated To Rose, words set off on an otherwise blank page after the copyright information. Styron acknowledges no one.

I noted with approval that one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, tucks her Housekeeping dedication—for my husband, and for James and Joseph, Jody and Joel, four wonderful boys—above the copyright notice, where, if I weren’t looking for it, I’d probably miss the small nod to her family. Anne Carson in Glass, Irony, and God spells out her dedication down the empty leaf before her title page:

For
my
mother
and
father

She embeds her acknowledgments on the copyright page, dutifully thanking the editors and publishers of magazines in which some of the writing first appeared.

Collections of poems traditionally include some form of acknowledgement, often a section that lists the literary venues where individual poems were previously published. Louise Glück’s landmark collection The House on Marshland includes a full page of acknowledgments. That format was necessitated by the number of poems previously published in magazines, or maybe Glück highlighted this history in a bow to the magazines’ services to literature. Embedding their names in small print on the copyright page would not bespeak gratitude so much as legal obligation.

The next page is her dedication:

With love and gratitude
Karen Kennerly
Tom Gilson
Ellen Bryant Voigt

So far the writers I’ve mentioned—novelist, poet, and memoirist—are restrained.

The expected breadth and depth of acknowledgments, however, seems to be evolving. Many hands are required to bring a book to life, and there’s a movement afoot to push this fact forward. Jo Ann Beard’s much-admired memoir The Boys of My Youth, published in 1998, lists venues where parts of the book were previously published. In the first paragraph of a separate page of acknowledgments she expresses gratitude to two art colonies for the “gift of time” and to a foundation for its financial support. Then she turns to thank her agent for “her sustained belief in my writing, her sanity, and her charming unwillingness to accept rejection when it came our way.” In the second paragraph, she thanks twenty-nine other people.

Mary Cappello’s Awkward, published in 2007, prints a five-page section at the back of the book that resembles an academic model of acknowledgments, wherein the author is entrenched in institutions. It’s hard to classify this book—it’s a memoir and a tour of an idea, combining research and personal meditation. She thanks a variety of fellowships that supported her research, thanks a range of writers and scholars to whom she is indebted, thanks in detail her students, undergraduate and graduate, and the courses that were instrumental to her thinking. She thanks eleven colleagues for their encouragement, nine friends and guides in Russia and Italy, where she was on fellowships, and gives a shout out to two tailors. She turns, then, to note the intellectual friendship of five others, her agent, who “keeps the faith,” her editor, her writing guru, her writing partner, and a partner in adventure. In all, it’s an utter refusal to make the immodest claims of the solitary genius in the attic.

Notes from No Man’s Land, published in 2009 by Eula Biss, is close in spirit to Awkward. Her essays are formally inventive, a rich blend of research and personal reflection. They are followed by twenty-three pages of notes. Her acknowledgments begin with the SOP of thanking the editors of the publications where the work previously appeared. Thanks then go out to her agent, to Graywolf for publishing the book, to Robert Polito for choosing her manuscript as the contest winner, and to Jeff Clark for the cover design. Then she moves to the foundations that supported her, seven friends who helped her write, three teachers who advised her along the way, and an additional four friends who specifically helped the revision process. Last she thanks her husband.

It’s not just nonfiction books that carry weighty acknowledgments. Frankly, the warmth and fellow feeling in Justin Torres’ We the Animals, a slim autobiographical novel, pretty much won me over. He graciously notes eight educational foundations that gave “generous support.” Agent and editor are mentioned. He provides a “partial” list of fourteen influential teachers, with special appreciation to his high school English teacher, whom “he loves very much.” The second page acknowledges readers, friends, and heroines for inspiration and guidance.

However, not everyone is on board with the proliferation of thank-yous. In the February 2009 issue of the American Spectator Jonathan Black takes on the shift in the way we do acknowledgments and quotes Sara Nelson, an editor of Publishers Weekly: “It used to be a writer spent 20 years alone in a room and came out with an ink-stained manuscript and made a deal with Bennett Cerf. Now it’s publishing by committee. Everything’s sales and marketing and publicity.” She says a bit snappishly that contemporary acknowledgments have turned into a “phonebook of helpers.”

In response, a blogger has taken issue with Black’s view that writers needn’t bring everyone in from the cold. It’s a good thing, says the blogger, that all persons involved with the birth of a book be laureated. Fifty-six commenters on the post agreed with his position; one found Black “curmudgeonly.” Gratitude can never be a bad thing—that was the consensus view. Spotlighting the many hands of support is good manners, good literary etiquette. Respondents also felt they got to know the author better by reading acknowledgments. They liked the personal touch.

When did the self-portrait of a writer as teetering atop a pyramid of support become commonplace? Listing a bunch of helpers behind a book was once seen as an uncrafty gesture. Inviting the whole cast—like that of a Broadway musical—to share the stage with the author diminished her stature as author.

If a book today is selected in a contest, as mine was, it is commonplace to thank the organization, the judge, and other “essential” people, such as first-round readers who passed the manuscript onto the judge. Then the publishing house must be thanked, with its troops of editors, copy editors, designers, production staff, and publicists. Agents might be involved—they can’t be left out. The impulse to pull the curtain up and bring everyone on stage for a bow is generous, and it demystifies the notion that an author is a genius alone responsible for birthing her book. Such an acknowledgment may awaken new respect for the mostly invisible assistance that is required for a book to be hatched, but sometimes I think that, given all the well-documented help the writer required, it’s a miracle the book got written at all.

In another era, we wanted the support behind the author to be invisible. No one advertised how substantially Gordon Lish “edited” Raymond Carver’s stories. Now, after the reputation has been established, we are faced with the much more complicated history of authorship behind the writer. Part of the romance of the book is the notion that there is only one author. A good book cannot be written by a committee, or so we have thought. In today’s mode of acknowledgments, the apparatus of writing is put on display.

The scene of writing, it turns out, is a crowded place. Children who suffered while their parent wrote must be brought on stage to be apologized to and thanked; others whom the author failed in some way (and who, according to the contemporary mode of thanks, are never a bitch about it) must be hailed for their patience and loyalty; agents and editors who believed in the writer and the book, against all odds—they, too, must take the floor. The book the reader holds in her hands was not miraculously created by the author and walked through a lonely tunnel; it had many stopovers at soothing spas along the way.

How can one not admire giving all persons their due, thanking each and every person for a part played so admirably? Isn’t it like the credits rolling after the film has ended?

The shift in attitudes I’ve been talking about is a part of much bigger changes in our world that go way beyond books themselves: the expansion of higher ed and the burst in the number of writing programs, which means that more authors have been supported by grants, research leaves, and other sorts of impersonal assistance that fertilize manuscripts; intensified interest in the conditions that allow markets to work, for example, economists’ attention to courts, financial apparatuses, and other institutions that have no role in a pure laissez-faire model; scholars who have in recent years studied the material conditions of books as objects, which–until the Internet allowed electronic versions–required paper and ink, typesetters, printers, warehouses, transportation, etc.; the decay of reverence in our jaded age; and so on. (What’s required here is a long list of factors—shall we call it an acknowledgment?)

And that leads me back to my own choices.

I was torn. On the one hand, being generous is a good thing, and I didn’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon like that rapscallion Jonathan Black. On the other hand, I noted that Denis Johnson’s recent Train Dreams thanked no one. There was no recitation of all the people who helped Denis Johnson write or publish Train Dreams. The era of the iconic author isn’t over just yet.

My first draft was fulsome. What about my copy editor? She was exemplary, I must say. I admired her care with details, her engagement with my themes. She probably never receives enough notice for her work, I thought, and decided to include her. I didn’t want to waste this opportunity to mention people who assisted me, and I thanked my high school teacher, Mr. Hinderlie, who had us write a short story a day for the first three weeks of my junior English class. He made us write a novel my senior year, and he introduced me to Joyce, Faulkner, Dickinson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many other writers who were thankfully, mercifully over my head and nothing like the pabulum served by Mrs. Troup, my English teacher for ninth and tenth grades. Who had ever properly acknowledged Mr. Hinderlie for the role he played in our development? No one. And I thought, I’m going to include him. The floodgates opened. In no time I had written two pages of gratitude, and I was just getting started.

But something was wrong. I thought about how awful those speeches are by actors who win awards. They’ve got a class roster of folks to thank, and they do, and by the end I don’t remember a single name or have any idea who was genuinely important. What’s special about being one of thirty people?

There were just three people whose acts of support towards me went deep, beyond the definition of help. One might even say their help cost them something, and none was employed in the business end of publishing. My husband allowed me to make him a character in my book, to open up his friendship with Joel for public scrutiny. Gale, the woman who had made a life with Joel for a time, allowed me to open it up again, even though it was painful. And Leigh simply was my ideal reader, the person I write to, who in that role has forged a lifetime bond with me and without whom I would be bereft.

At first, those three were lost in the crowd of the be-thanked around them. Their help wasn’t distinguished from that of a copy editor. It wasn’t my friend’s job to be my ideal reader. This was a gift I would never be able to adequately describe, not in a million acknowledgments. On my acknowledgments page I would thank only the people who couldn’t really be thanked.

In the final version I didn’t mention the Associated Writing Programs, which ran the contest I won, or Susan Orlean, who selected my manuscript, or the people at the University of Georgia Press who oversaw the production of my book (though they did a great job!). In each instance, I feel nothing but admiration, praise, and gratitude for these individuals and organizations. Yet I didn’t include them in my acknowledgments. In the end, I said: “I can’t say enough, and so I say very little.”

I didn’t dedicate my book to anyone. The book itself was the manifestation of my dedication, dedicated to Joel and laid at the altar of death. If I had written To Joel, it would have been a sign that my book had failed.


One Comment on “Cordelia Does Acknowledgments”

  1. I’ve written a fairly inclusive one, Marcia. But I keep taking people out, for the reasons you explain. So . . . the middle way for me, I guess.


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