The “Acks”: A Writer’s Academy Award Speech
I have a literary confession to make: I fantasized about writing my acknowledgments long before I received a contract for my first fiction book. And when the chance finally arrived last year to put down on paper two decades’ worth of thanks, the idea came to me that this is a writer’s shot at giving her Oscar speech. Because, let’s face it, there are no red carpet, televised award ceremonies for the artist who crafts with verbiage. Writers only get to take the stage for a screen adaptation or script award. I’m sure many prefer it this way, but it does rob the author of being able to perform that satisfying act of public acknowledgment, which, according to Webster’s 11th, is “a thing done or given in recognition of something received.” But as it is in the film industry, the reality in the writing industry is this: There are many people around us who inspire, support, mentor, teach, edit, print, publicize, purchase, etc.
So I began to wonder what other writers felt about this part of the publishing process, what they considered when writing their acknowledgments—or “acks,” as we refer to them in the biz. Did they worry about pulling a Jennifer Aniston—forgetting to acknowledge an important person, such as her husband at the time—or did they worry about pulling a Hillary Swank—thanking absolutely everyone they ever met? Did they put much thought into them at all?
I contacted a handful of published writers at different stages in their careers, who had acks that read beyond a simple laundry list, to get their take. What I uncovered was, as is usual when conversing with highly creative minds, more complex and layered than I’d anticipated.
Facebook friend Jenna Blum posted a fortuitous status update that begged to be followed up on: “There is no greater pleasure than writing the acknowledgments and dedication,” she wrote in November 2009, in preparation for her recent novel release, The Stormchasers. Blum’s best-selling novels are heavy on research, and I learned, when I wrote to her, that writing these miscellaneous book elements not only brings her pleasure but, more important, “The thought that I can tip my hat to these amazing teachers, readers, and supporters has sustained me through some dark hours of writer’s block.”
These pithy little book addendums, simple lists of names unrecognizable to many readers, can be a powerful incentive to keep writers—in those lonely rooms that sometimes ring with total emptiness—moving forward to their end goal. Blum added: “Researching both my novels has changed my life, and the people who have helped me have become some of my closest friends. . . . They’re . . . people ranging from Holocaust survivors to stormchasers, meteorologists to librarians on the Oklahoma Pandhandle. So the Acks . . . could be a book in themselves. But I like to think the novels are an homage, and the acknowledgments are an official grace note.”
For writer Amy Knox Brown, preparing the acks for her first book, Three Versions of the Truth, was “like reciprocating a dinner party,” and she did worry in hindsight, a la Aniston, that she might have forgotten someone or that she should have used specific names instead of thanking people in a group: “Since Three Versions took about ten years to write, a lot of folks helped along the way. . . . Finding the right way to thank [my husband] was the best part of writing the acknowledgments for me.” The right way, for Knox, turned out to be repeating song lyrics from an old 1935 cartoon they had watched together.
The acks can also be a voyeuristic peek into the author’s personal life, perhaps more so than the book itself, if you are reading fiction. Readers often mistake fictional narrators for the authors; however, there can be no confusion in the acks—it’s the writer speaking, sometimes peeling back their protective veneer for a page or two.
Juliette Fay, author of Shelter Me, offers much in her backmatter for readers. “When I enjoy a novel or a movie or a song, I find myself wondering about the person who created it.” Given this she tries, in her acks, to “give readers that sense of who I am as a person behind the story and why I was compelled to write it.” Fay’s additional comments to my questions fall right in line with my metaphor about Oscar speeches:
If a writer doesn’t include acknowledgments, or only thanks a couple of people, I lose respect. It seems selfish, especially now that I know how many people it takes to get a book out of a writer’s head, into some semblance of order, and eventually onto a bookstore shelf. Any author who thinks they don’t have people to thank is lying to him- or herself. It’s like when an actor wins an academy award and doesn’t thank their spouse—I can’t enjoy them as much in the next movie because I see them as self-important.
Then there is the writer’s often complex relationship with family members, and the poignancy of not being able to share a milestone with a living friend or relative. Theresa Williams’s dark novel, The Secret of Hurricanes, can’t help but send readers to the acks in search for more. Once there, readers find a reference to teacher Ralph Croon, “who died too soon,” and she concludes with thanking her parents: “I’m so sorry, both of you, that you didn’t get the chance to see this happen.” When I queried her, Williams said of the former quote that her teacher was the “witness” to her growth as a writer, of import because it echoes the theme of the act of bearing witness in her book. “Ralph Croon haunts me, but he’s a good ghost, a very good one, indeed.” As for the section thanking her parents: “It was the only way I had at the time for assuaging the guilt I had writing about my childhood. I wrote about things my parents wouldn’t have wanted to be made public. The acknowledgment offered at least a small glimpse into the complexities of my relationship with them. I couldn’t finish the book until both had died.”
If you are less interested in delving into the writer’s psyche, there are now those contemporary writers who just can’t help but let their creativity trickle into everything they pen or type. Steve Almond, known for his witty humor, has acks worthy of reading on their own. Yet I noticed in his first book, My Life in Heavy Metal (2002), his acks are traditional; by his third book, The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories (2005), his acks are full of the innovative takes you would expect from him. When we spoke about this evolution, he concurred: “Basically, you’re right. I played it very straight with the acks for Heavy Metal, but with B. B. Chow, and later books, I’ve used that space, not just to offer thanks to people who made the book possible, but to joke around and rant and whatnot. . . . I decided at a certain point that I didn’t want my acks to read like one of those Oscar speeches where it’s basically a list of people you’ve never heard of, and the reader is left feeling like they’re not in some special literary club. Yuck. Better to use that precious space to speak about gratitude more broadly.”
As I looked through my own library of books, I noticed that the acks seem to be a recent phenomenon. Dedications abound, as far back as the Hemingway I pulled down, and there is that tradition of dedicating books to one’s monarch or patron (Jane Austen was forced to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent), but aside from the occasional Note by the Author, a list of thanks doesn’t seem to have become standard in fiction until the 1990s.
Michael Martone is also known for his creativity in taking book parts to an art form. Yet no acks appear in his early works. By 2005, he published a satirical collection of contributor’s notes (Michael Martone), and his acks in this book are a clever take on the interior: “Michael Martone thanks Theresa Pappas, who calls Michael Martone by Michael Martone’s real name.”
In 2008, the University of Georgia Press published Martone’s Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, a collection of nonfiction forms he calls “episodic at best.” Throughout these acks, he aptly weaves a quilting metaphor as a way to thank the book community that pieced it all together. When I asked him about his take on the acks and the shift toward more writers using them, he eloquently responded:
The Romantic-Modernist construction of authorship has been with us for a long time, and it insists on the notion that the author is a solitary, individual genius. Publishers in the past have liked to sustain that illusion, hiding the collaborative sauges-making that happens between the writer and his or her editor, etc. The new machine, the computer . . . is deconstructing that idea of the author, and the aknowledgment page and its recent growth into a full-fledged genre is an indicator of that change. . . . Publishing is more akin to community organizing than to monastic practice. The author is dead. Long live the authors of any one book.
One publisher who has been in the publishing field for decades and seen many changes is Nan Talese of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. She agrees that the acks have become much longer in fiction: “Years ago—perhaps fifteen years ago, I have not researched it—novels stood on their own as the work of the author. . . . The only problem with lengthy acknowledgments for a novel is that they break the spell of the novel. I wonder, in this day of the Internet and authors’ Facebook pages and websites, might it not be better for fiction writers to post their acknowledgments on the web?”
According to Webster’s 11th, another definition of acknowledgments “implies the disclosing of something that has been or might be concealed.” The writer as lone creator has been outed. Even the most hermetic have an agent or editor to thank. So next time you read those growing acknowledgments, or “Oscar speeches,” that go beyond a laundry list, look for the stories underlying them, know they have sustained many writers during their darkest days of writer’s block and rejection, and take heart, if you’re an aspiring author, in knowing there is a whole community backing each book.
Tara L. Masih is author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (a National Best Books Award finalist), and is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) andThe Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (a Skipping Stones Honor Book). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (such as Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, New Millennium Writings, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer), and her essays have been reprinted in college textbooks and read on NPR. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest, a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. She judges the intercultural essay prize for the annual Soul-Making Keats Literary Contest, and has taught flash at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and at Grub Street. She received her MA in Writing and Publishing from Emerson College, and is the founder of and managing editor for The Best Small Fictions series. For more information, visit www.taramasih.com.See other articles by Tara Masih