Saturday, November 17, 2012

What's in a Title?

I have been thinking lately of book titles, looking over a little collection of memorable ones and wondering how important a great title is for a book.

This topic has a connection with something that writers often fear, at least unconsciously (I know I used to): How can I possibly say anything original?

It's true that most of the great themes--love and war and jealousy and greed--have been well mined over the centuries; yet each writer of fiction brings his or her own experience and perspective and style to the subject.  As Tolstoy said in the famous opening of "Anna Karenina":  every family is unhappy in its own way.

There are endless permutations of unhappiness, alas, and so material to keep fiction writers free of the worry that there is nothing new under the sun. And as for my area, non-fiction, the Internet is a daily demonstration of the infinite variety of topics that the layperson can learn about and address.  This blog, in fact, is mainly a series of reactions to things I have been reading. Most writing of this type is a creative exchange and borrowing. ("Good writers borrow, great writers steal.")

Back to titles: many great works have plain, ordinary titles that end up capturing the essence of a book: Great Expectations, for example, or Middlemarch (a pedestrian title for a great novel). Shakespeare put little imagination into his titles, which, except for Much Ado about Nothing and maybe one or two others, are unexciting.  So if we can't judge a book by its
cover, we can't predict too much from a title.  Great titles can promise much more than they deliver. Others are just right. I have been skimming a new novel by Amor Towles, Rules of Civility, which perfectly suits his unique story of Manhattan cafe society in 1938.

So my advice to writers: Don't worry about the title of your story, novel or article or whatever: it will emerge, often as you complete the text. Or your editor or publisher will suggest one. Often I have seen in films a struggling author sitting at an old typewriter and beginning with the title and his name; afterwards he is stuck and angrily begins again. This is not how writers work!

As for great titles that are memorable, some are poetic (From Here to Eternity, Gone with the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.), some clever, offbeat, or wacky. Here is my list of favorites:

1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
3. Vile Bodies
4. Flaubert's Parrot
5. Where the Wild Things Are
6. Paradise Lost
7. The Sound and the Fury
8. Welcome to the Monkey House
9. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
10. The Kalahari Typing School for Men
11. Tears of the Giraffe
12. Reusing Old Graves
13. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
14. A History of Lesbian Hair
15. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This last one, simple but just right, is not clever or poetic or whimsical, just a memorably concise indicator of Gibbon's history. Much the same for Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

One of my all-time favorites is a little-known import from the U.K. by Alan Coren, GOLFING WITH CATS, which has nothing to do with either golf or cats but, as the author indicates in his Preface, these subjects attract book buyers, so he put them, along with a swastica, on the cover.  (Cats, as I learned with my Writing with Cats, sell books.)  This is a good example of a title being greater than the book, which was not a bestseller.

What makes a bestseller? A lot more than the title. But I can't resist the joke about how, in non-fiction, an ideal title would be: "How to Lose Weight, Get Rich, and Find God." If only I could work cats into that one....

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