Today’s post is by writer and literary consultant Grace Bialecki (@GraceBialecki).
On a recent freakishly warm February day, I walked to the library in high spirits. The reckless sunshine had banished winter’s gray and my hopes for spring were budding as I floated up the building’s stone steps. Outside the reading room, I made my usual stop at the “Pay What You Will” book cart. Amongst its treasures was a signed, hard cover copy of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona, and soon, I was its proud owner.
After a diligent hour of writing, I took a break, flipped to the back of the book, and indulged in one of my favorite pastimes. No, I’m not a sadist who starts by reading the final page—I’m an acknowledgments junkie. Moshfegh writes dark, bizarre novels, and I’ve always found her an enigmatic figure. Who would make their way to her acknowledgments?
But there were only blank pages. Two of them, the second one thicker, marking the end of the book. Impossible. I flipped to the front and then back again. She had acknowledged no one. Later, for the sake of this article and my own sanity, I checked the library’s copy. Also blank.
Frankly, I’m still shocked by this bold move, though anyone who has read Lapvona might find it a fitting end to a brutal novel. Nonetheless, this piece will continue to assume that most books have acknowledgment pages. These literary credits allow us to peer into authors’ lives—from their friends and early readers to business associates, from fellowships and residences to previous publications—and reveal the fascinating web of the publishing world.
Yes, I’m nosy—I wanted to know who Moshfegh’s friends are. Most acknowledgment pages list early readers and supporters of the project, and show which authors are helping each other. These names lead to questions—were they in the same MFA cohort? Or was one the author’s mentor? Where do authors find their trusted rough draft readers?
On a fiction break after Lapvona, I’m now reading Major Jackson’s poetry collection Hoops where he thanks the poet, Terrance Hayes. I’m familiar with Hayes’ poems, but seeing his name along with Jackson’s endorsement is a gentle reminder for me to explore his work. It’s also an insight into Jackson’s “artistic family tree” or those artists whose work is related to his. Hoops is crafted around a series of poems entitled, “Letters to [Gwendolyn] Brooks,” which makes her an obvious addition to the family. Noticing the connections between authors is one way to start building your own artistic family tree and conceptualizing your work’s place in the literary forest. And also, it’s thrilling to see a familiar name pop up, even if it’s only an author I’ve read.
A quick gratitude practice
The language authors use to thank their friends and family is inspiration for both thank-you cards and daily life. Unlike Moshfegh’s empty pages, Jackson’s acknowledgment comes just after the table of contents. This is a sign that his appreciation is front and center, even before he writes, “A traditional bow is owed to many friends and colleagues without whose penetrating comments, critical conversations, and lasting encouragement I would have remained enthusiastically in awe yet speechless. They include…” Jackson’s poetic version of an Oscar speech is a wonderful example of how words can express thanks.
What’s more, studies from UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center have shown a consistent gratitude practice increases participants’ mental well-being. Obviously, we’re not all penning daily acknowledgements pages, but it’s comforting to know that this concept inherently increases happiness.
Insight into the industry
Although reading acknowledgment pages is a way to learn about the writing community, I have to admit, my interest in them originally came from practical advice. When I was querying for my first novel, a literary agent suggested I look in the back of books similar to mine. On the acknowledgments page, an author’s agent is almost always thanked, and if you’ve already done the work of reading a title from their list, you’re set up for a solid query. While this is an admittedly low-tech and time-intensive approach, I still appreciate it as a way of getting familiar with the industry and am genuinely interested in who is representing who.
The path to publishing can be traced a step further from agent to editor, since they’re usually credited as well. This shows you if the agent is selling manuscripts to the Big Five or smaller independent presses. And also, who at those houses they’re in contact with. It’s not as timely as Publishers Weekly’s Book Deals, which lists that week’s acquisitions and is the fodder for many triumphant Twitter posts, but it’s giving you the same information at no cost. Think of browsing the back pages as an alternative to the Internet’s information highway—this is the scenic, toll-free route, which offers its own views of the industry.
Inspiration for your career
In addition to thanking those who helped with their book, authors also recognize the places where they wrote it. These could be residences, fellowships, or workshops. Macdowell, Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and Tin House are a few that often pop up. Yes, these are often prestigious places and, depending on where you are in your career, it might be a waste of time and applications fees to submit. Also, check the requirements — Cave Canem, for example, is exclusively open to Black poets. Personally, I have a tab on a messy spreadsheet of contests and residences titled, “Later.” Just because I’m years ways from these places doesn’t mean I can’t take notes and incubate dreams.
In collections of short stories and poetry, there’s also a list of publications where the pieces first appeared. First of all, this is an exciting way to discover literary magazines. And if one matches your style, a potential home for your work. Secondly, these are insights into the author’s trajectory. Where was the first poem published? How many years between it and the last? And can you see how the writer’s work has evolved?
I recently tore through Matthew Rasmussen’s poetry collection, Black Aperture. It won the 2013 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of Poets and was a National Book Award Finalist. Of course, my reductive brain assumed Rasmussen was a poetic genius who crafted this masterpiece in mere months. But its back pages reveal that this sleek and haunting collection is the result of over seven years of work. In fact, several poems appeared in their “current or previous versions” in a chapbook, Fingergun, published by Kitchen Press in 2006.
To me, this speaks volumes about the time and tenacity it takes to put together a book. For all we knew, Rasmussen did more edits even after these poems appeared in his chapbook. While it’s easy to associate these polished pieces being birthed this way, in reality, it’s years of labor that have gotten them to this point. This is all to say…
It takes a village
While Moshfegh remains a mysterious figure, I can assure you she did not write, edit, design and publish Lapvona without a single helping hand. Yes, every author must put in the hours of work at their desk to complete a project. But those hours do not happen in a void. Starting and finishing a manuscript requires emotional support—thanks to your parents, partners, and families. It requires other readers—thanks to other writers, artists, and friends. It requires time and space—thanks to grants and foundations. And then getting that manuscript into the hands of readers means thanking agents, publishers, book designers, and a marketing team.
While writers write alone, it takes a village to create a book and these final pages of gratitude are an important reminder of all that teamwork.
I’m curious to hear from the other readers out there. Do you read acknowledgment pages? And if so, what have you learned from them?