Title

The word "no"There is a cultural blight infesting our country.

Presumably, artists who show their work to other people want the work to be noticed, admired, and remembered. I may be mistaken (that happened a few times), but I can’t imagine the artist thinking, “Now that you’ve experienced my art, I want you to forget you ever encountered it.”

But OK, suppose the artist did inexplicably want the work of art to be forgotten. What would help to guarantee this goal of forgetfulness? One thing that would be very useful would be a title that was almost impossible to remember. It would be somewhat like pretending to have a title, but then in a functional way, not actually having one.

It probably isn’t true that artists want their works to be forgettable, but in that case why are so many using idiotically simple titles that consist of only one word? This phenomenon cannot completely be explained by a lack of imagination, because even good writers these days will do it. The reasoning (if “reasoning” isn’t much too refined a concept here) may be that “hey, less words is less to remember!” Which is dumb, but maybe that’s how it started. Now, however, the practice has simply become a cultural commonality, a sad fad.

The book The Help (alright, it has an article, so it’s one and a half words) is a very good book, yet it suffers from this problem. At the moment, the book has become well-known and was turned into a fine movie, but in fifty years, when someone hears the phrase “the help” it will be much harder to connect it with the book.

The problem of amazingly forgettable titles is especially rampant in movies, moreso than in books, perhaps because movies are always closer to pop culture and therefore more susceptible to fads and stupidity. Some quite good movies recently have been marred by a vacuous title, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember their names.

It is not specifically that a one-word title is bad, although when you see books with titles like She, Wit, Chess, or Speak (that’s four different books, if you didn’t catch that), it would be natural to think that the choice of a single common word is the problem. Are the writers really so completely lacking in imagination? How did they get to be writers?

In fact, there are books with excellent titles of only one word: Dracula, Narnia, Babbit. When you hear those titles, the only thing you can think of is that work, or something based on it that later took the word, like a movie adaptation. Notice, however, that each of those words was invented and cannot be confused with anything else.

A book title (or title of anything) should do three things: (1) it should reasonably be connected with the work in some logical way, (2) it should be memorable, and (3) it should have an inherently catchy or euphonious sound to it, so that when we hear the title by itself it still has a kind of poetry.

Serious writers know that this is NOT EASY TO DO. The current practice of pretending that there is something sophisticated or pithy or clever about one-word titles has been a godsend to lazy and bad writers. Even the worst writers have words pop into their head. There you go. Done.

Here are a few samples of titles where the writer actually worked at it and came up with something strong and memorable:

The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)

A Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia-Márquez)

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)

Since the current cultural practice has hit bottom (inless we begin to name books using only single letters of the alphabet), when things begin to change, which of course they will, it will have to get better. That is something to look forward to. Maybe I’ll write a book about that change. I’ll call it Look.

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2 Comments

Filed under How We Create Magic

2 responses to “Title

  1. David, My working title for the poetry ms. I wrote in grad school was “The Valley” b/c the poems, which you’ve heard, were about Penns Valley. But it was a boring title which led to the more recent decision to name the work “Where We Were When We Remembered Where We Were.” Catchy in its aliteration, but I’m fear that ironically it might be hard for people to remember.

  2. As you can tell, I agree that “The Valley” is not a very good title. Or even a slightly good title. But that doesn’t mean your concern that the alternative title is too long or difficult is wrong. Maybe you’re still working on it. I’d suggest a truncated “Where We Were When We Remembered” which has, for me anyway, a hint of promise and mystery. And it’s shorter.

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