No book springs fully formed from the head of Zeus, let alone from the brain of the author. Even the shoddiest, pulpiest novels or the cheesiest self-help tomes benefit from prepublication attention by other people.
When I was a book editor I told authors that the preface and the acknowledgments sections were theirs alone. I was unlikely to see those sections until the book was published, so they were spared my editorial scrawl.
Naturally, the first thing I did when I got the bound copy of a book—after holding my breath while checking that the author's name was spelled correctly and that the newest version of the title appeared on the jacket—was to close the door of my office and read those two parts.
In the preface the author will often tell the origin tale; it can be interesting to see from whence a book actually does spring. Unlike the introduction, which sets up the intellectual framework, the preface can be more personal, more immediate. It can be more playful, more fun, and angrier, even. A preface is the closest many academic authors ever come to writing a personal essay.
But the place where an author's personality comes through clearly, if unintentionally, is in the acknowledgments. It used to be the acknowledgments were up front, sometimes tagging along in the last few paragraphs of the preface, but convention now has shifted them to the end of the book, which makes sense. After you see what the author has to say, you can trace how she got there. You can map her friends, family life, writing patterns, and gustatory predilections. If an author is coupled, you can often tell how he or she feels about the partnership ("My wife edited every sentence"; "He kept the kids locked in the basement while I was writing"). You learn if she loves animals, or needs five cups of iced chai to get through the day.
Cranky book reviewers have taken to railing about the "bloated" acknowledgments sections of novels. It's only fairly recently that fictioneers have begun to pen the kind of pages-long thank-you sections to which nonfiction readers are accustomed. I don't understand the carping; it's easy to skim or skip those pages. Plenty of people pass on the Academy Awards broadcast. Acceptance speeches can be tiresome, filled with names we don't recognize, and lasting for what can seem like three days. But some of us like to read the acknowledgments; we enjoy a less-glossed glance at a book's creator.
And acknowledgments sections are often pretty darned unvarnished. Sometimes they contain embarrassing admissions, or clichés of thought or word that would not have made it into the body of the book. Sometimes they contain painful revelations. I'm still haunted by the acknowledgments section of an author whose teenage son was killed in a car crash two weeks before the author finished writing the book. It won tons of awards, but what lingers with me is the image of the author and his son playing "thousands of hours of ping-pong games."
A well-known historian wrote that his wife "still took his breath away." Thirty years later, from what I can gather, they are still together. That surprises and heartens me. When I skim through the books on my shelves I note that, of the people who thanked their spouses or partners effusively, many are no longer with those formerly loved ones. Art is long; relationships can be brief.
Acknowledgments sections sometimes seem like exercises in name-dropping: Hey! Look at all the famous people I know! Some writers are, in fact, name-droppers, but some are actually friends with famous people.
In a collection of names, it can be hard to parse the particular relationships, but still, six degrees of separation is a fun game. I like to see the connections between folks I would never have thought to put together, and I like to think about circles I would love to be a part of if only I could elbow my way in.
I also like to see salutes to administrative assistants and technical helpers—those people who labor in anonymity but without whom most authors would not be able to publish. I was always shocked and a little horrified when researchers did not thank staff members of the libraries or archives in which they had done work. Academic librarians stay current on the publications in our fields, monitor changing trends, manage resources, keep us in mind when new stuff arrives, and often connect us with other people who are working on similar research topics. They ask us what we need and then they get it for us, usually with enthusiasm and good cheer. Librarians are among the few people who truly understand what it takes to do scholarly work, and I am saddened when their contributions fail to be acknowledged by writers.
Given my past job as an editor, and, well, my personality, I like to try to suss out an author's relationship with his or her publisher. It tells me a lot when someone doesn't thank the editor. Most writers do. Editors are the ones who believed in the project from the beginning, who cultivated and nurtured the authors to get them to sign a contract. Even if relations are strained, as they sometimes are, or if the editor never offered a word of comment or advice, he or she is still the one who went to bat for you in-house.
I also notice when authors don't thank the editorial assistants. Generally it's those youngish people—who subsist on slim salaries by living in closets and eating macaroni and cheese from a box; who usually spend more money on books than they do on shoes; who may be inexperienced in a professional setting but are often well educated and super-smart—who have the most contact with the author. Editorial assistants do important, if sometimes invisible, work. Someone who looks out for you—who knows who you are—can make a big difference in the publication experience.
Big-name authors often go far deeper into the organizational structure of the publishing company to offer thanks. Art directors, production staff, and especially sales and marketing people become part of the team the author is beholden to. Not only do books not write themselves, they do not magically appear as bound copies, and the process that gets them into the hands of readers depends on the hard work of a lot of people. I don't think authors need to thank everyone who ever had anything to do with the book (including the mail carrier and the barista who makes the morning lattes, though those latte makers can be real sources of support), but I do think it's important to keep in mind that it can take a village to help someone write a book.
While writing might be in many ways a solitary endeavor, producing a good book rarely is. It takes a certain amount of audacity to believe what you have to say is worth publishing and warrants the time and energy of readers. I understand that. But I also know that even the most puffed-up egoist needs a support crew. Of course, if you're an egoist, you probably don't realize that or care.
For me, writing the acknowledgments section of a book is like eating dessert. It's a treat to be able to salute the people who helped get me where I wanted to go. With my current manuscript, a novel, I worry that my acknowledgments section will be longer than the book. I've been writing the section in my head since before I got the contract. I relish the opportunity to pay tribute to the many people who encouraged me, who answered my weird and random questions, and who have, over the years, edited my prose in ways that taught me to become a better writer. I want to thank the friends who have fed me, my students, and the guys who brew my coffee. I want to thank my dog Helen. I know: You can hear the get-her-off-the-stage music playing. But without all that support, I'd never have published anything.
George Orwell said, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness." It would be even worse if we didn't have people nursing us along the way.