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None of this would have been possible without...: The Art of Writing Acknowledgements

My book, The Girl from Amsterdam, is going to be published in Germany in 2021 in German. The manuscript has been checked and double-checked. I've sent it off to the editor and translator. But there is one thing I’ve been putting off until now – the acknowledgements.

Of course, like a would-be actor dreaming of their Oscar’s acceptance speech, I have wondered in idle moments who I would thank if my book ever got published...and who I would omit. But it seemed like asking for trouble, putting the cart before the horse so to speak, to write one before I found an agent or a publisher. Now I have both, the time has come…

But I procrastinate. Who should I thank? What tone should I take? How long should it be?Acknowledgements are a genre of their own. I do some research. First, a definition from The Cambridge English Dictionary:

Acknowledgments (plural): A short text at the beginning or end of a book where the writer names people or other works that have helped in writing the book.

That sounds straightforward. Except, when I turn to the back of some of my favourite books, I discover a plethora of interpretations of that definition. Length varies from to three lines to several pages. Debut writers, I discover, are more effusive in their thanks compared to established writers. Some give thanks in excruciating detail. Others, however, eschew acknowledgements altogether.

It is easy to get the tone wrong. In his article Against Acknowledgments in The New Yorker, Sam Sacks writes:

‘…it [acknowledgements] appears like an online pop-up ad, benefiting no one but the author and his comrades. This is surely why these afterwords are often so garrulously narcissistic and strewn with clichés. The most radical experimentalist adheres to the most mindless acknowledgments-page formula; the most stinging social critic suddenly becomes Sally Field winning an Oscar.’

Ouch. If I’m honest, however, there is some truth in this. Certain words and phrases recur: indebted, grateful, couldn’t-have-done-it-without-you. People are described as dauntless, wonderful, enthusiastic, generous. Details designed to present the author's human side can be cringeworthy. Do we have to know that so-and-so provided endless supplies of cake/tea/prosecco/hugs (delete as appropriate) without which the book would never have been written?

And yet, I can’t deny, I am disappointed when I flick to the end of some books, hoping to get a glimpse of the man or woman behind the text, only to find a list of names that is startling in its brevity. A role call of people without any hint of what they may have done to support the author seems inadequate. I don't think twice, however, when Anne Enright writes only a short paragraph at the end of The Gathering. The acknowledgement is dignified, genuine and fits with the mood of the book.

Perhaps then, I am happiest when the style of the acknowledgments is akin to the style of the novel. A chatty, humorous and heartfelt afterword from Marian Keyes is a delight. It is like the encore of a concert that I wish wasn’t ending. But if Cormac McCarthy ended his novels in such a manner, I think I’d feel cheated. I want him to be gruff, mysterious and otherworldly. A blank page with no acknowledgements is entirely in-keeping with his style. Likewise, when a debut novelist thanks all and sundry, I find it endearing rather than irritating.

One thing on which there is agreement, however, is that acknowledgements are all about recognising that the author would not have got far without the help of agents, family, friends, publishers, translators and other writers. An author may labour for most of the time in isolation but key people keep them going like the support crew for a solo crossing of the Atlantic. In the end, heartfelt gratitude defies cynicism and notions of style.

So I will stop procrastinating and simply enjoy the experience of giving thanks to those people who have helped me along the way. I will have Stuart Evers' useful advice in the back of my mind - 'Authors, like Oscar winners, should keep their acknowledgements short' - and hope that I can also make them sweet.

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