A Guide to Decoding Literary Thank-Yous

Posted December 13, 2017 9:06 p.m. EST

I love the acknowledgments sections of books. I love what they say and what they do not say. I love what they accidentally say. I love the ways families are discussed, and how the truth about the wretchedness of book-writing finally comes tumbling out, and the combination of neuroticism and relief, pride and latent terror.

It is not, however, fashionable to love acknowledgments, and for good reason: Most of them are numbingly predictable in their architecture, little Levittowns of gratitude. The critic Sam Sacks wrote a splendid rant about this for The New Yorker five years ago. “The most radical experimentalist,” he complained, “adheres to the most mindless acknowledgments-page formula.”

In my job as a book critic for this newspaper — a role I leave today; is this why I’m contemplating codas, endings? — I have learned what Sacks means.

Authors thank their publishers for their patience, and their editors for their brilliance and vision. (“She saw what this book was supposed to be long before I did.”) They thank their agents for betting on them, their friends and family for tolerating their anxiety, and their talented colleagues for invaluable comments that transformed leaden first scribbles into fine threads of spun gold. They thank resourceful librarians, indispensable research assistants and diligent fact-checkers; the foundations that gave them money and the experts who lent them wisdom; and the many universities — assuming the authors are academics — that invited them to conferences to refine their ideas.

But even within this rote exercise, even amid the dreary name-checking calisthenics, truths seep out.

Some revelations are inadvertent, and not especially flattering to the author. In my head, I have an informal taxonomy of acknowledgments, and one species is the Name-Dropper. Do writers know the kind of insecurity they’re betraying when they do their Trump Towers of thanks, their gold-plated word-piles of self-regard?

When I first started in this job, Jay Winik’s “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History” had just come out. His acknowledgments began: “One night some years back in a New York hotel, I was invited to a little dinner with Martha Stewart, Mike Wallace, Frank McCourt, our hosts Wayne and Catherine Reynolds, and Elie Wiesel. It was a far-ranging, eclectic discussion.”

Winik got around to making a point, but that setup, alas, sounded like Cindy Adams was on the line and she wanted her gossip column back from 1998.

Fiction writers are plenty capable of similar bombast. Those outside the publishing business might be impressed that an author knows George Saunders/Toni Morrison/Marilynne Robinson, but those on the inside know that Saunders/Morrison/Robinson was really that person’s creative writing professor.

The best acknowledgments cop to insecurity explicitly, not by accident. In “The Butchering Art,” which I reviewed only two weeks ago, Lindsey Fitzharris thanks her divorce lawyer for restoring her self-esteem — now there’s something you don’t see every day — and adds that she’s indebted to friends “who reminded me not to let my struggle become my identity.” To one stalwart pal in particular: “You are the hard shell to my taco filling.”

In my imaginary filing system, Fitzharris’ acknowledgments falls into the Heartfelt category. They’re human and humanizing and packed with bonus details. (Turns out she’s part of The Order of the Good Death. Look it up.) Her frank discussion of divorce is a reminder that authors aren’t working on their books in some parallel time and space, but in real time, as real life is happening to them, and sometimes real life is hard.

Writers are powering their way through illnesses and losses and other unexpected derailments. In “Manhattan Beach,” Jennifer Egan mentions that her brother died last year. (He was young. She wrote through that.) In “Turtles All the Way Down,” John Green thanks two mental health professionals who have made his life “immeasurably better.” It’s the first time many readers will learn of Green’s struggles with an especially intrusive case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Read enough acknowledgments, though, and you will also discover how many writers are suffering from common unhappiness, as Freud might say. Rough spells come up so frequently that it raises a pair of questions: Does writing a book itself cause distress? Or are writers already distress-prone?

The answer is likely both. Another persistent theme of acknowledgments, by authors of fiction and nonfiction alike, is that a) most writers are a little bananas and b) books make them even more so. Late-night phone calls come up a lot. So do pep talks. There’s a lot of talk about pride and stubbornness. “I would never want to be married to a writer,” Monica Hesse, the author of “American Fire,” writes as she thanks her husband, “but I’m glad he doesn’t feel the same way.”

The authors who write the most gratifying thank-yous tend to admit to the messiness and difficulties of writing itself, not just to their internal bedlam. In “Unwanted Advances,” Laura Kipnis singles out her agent, “who helped shape the book after some embarrassing early struggles with tone.” (A very familiar confession to writers — most of us fear at some point or another that the treble and bass are out of whack.) In “The Attention Merchants,” Tim Wu thanks his mother, “who helpfully panned the (original) introduction” to his book; in “The Vanity Fair Diaries,” Tina Brown thanks her daughter for pointing out that many of the celebrities she mentions are, well, a bit old, and might require some identification for millennials. Those last two examples prove something I’ve long suspected: Family members often make the best editors, because they can speak most bluntly to authors, and they have the next-highest stakes. Guess who has to live with you if your book gets savaged?

Acknowledgments can also be read sociologically. It will come as no surprise that women are far more apt than men to give hearty shout-outs to parents and babysitters for child care. James Forman Jr. was one of the notable exceptions this year, profusely thanking his mother and stepfather for pitching in on weekends while he worked on “Locking Up Our Own.” The line jumped out like a kangaroo.

Reading celebrities’ acknowledgments is another experience entirely, almost a kind of sport — perhaps the highlight of which is finding the euphemistic phrase the putative author uses to thank the actual author. (Ivanka Trump’s 2009 book, “The Trump Card,” famously failed to include any acknowledgments at all. This year, in “Women Who Work,” she rolled the credits; if only her team had made a better book.)

As a rule, acknowledgments from famous people come in two varieties: Really long and really short. One imagines the reason for both is the same. Acknowledgments are political. Either you thank everyone you know or you thank so few people that no one who’s been omitted can whine. (Joe Biden went the short route this year. Hillary Clinton’s list was Homeric.)

Having written acknowledgments before, I sympathize with the impulse to go Homeric, actually. I sympathize with almost every excess. It doesn’t occur to you as you’re writing that you’re being maudlin or cliché or comically prolix. At the time, you simply feel grateful. You mean every word.