I remember when I was two years old, I’d get cranky sometimes, always with justification. Now that I’m 60 years on, I still get cranky about some things, although it doesn’t bother me as much now when the peas on my plate touch the potatoes. Now, though, I get cranky about the horribly dull titles of so many books. Of course you may disagree with me, if you have, for instance, a penchant for self delusion.
The title of a book should be interesting and catch the attention. Let’s take two titles, of real books: The Invited and The Witch of Lime Street. Which strikes you more? I’ve been noticing for years now—and I’ve published a diatribe on this before—that a fad has drifted through our culture, like a toxic cloud negating imagination, for dull forgettable titles, consisting usually of only one word. So alright, fads for stupidity aren’t exactly rare. They even occur in politics, trumping other considerations. But writers are supposed to be smart and care about language.
The amazing thing about this cultural blight is that it is the very people who claim to be the most creative, the most serious about language, who are the ones most avidly trotting like lemmings into the middle of the toxic cloud. Serious writers, and they are serious, of literary fiction are more likely than any other type of writer to degrade themselves with this lazy fad.
You don’t need to take my word for this (although when have you ever actually caught me lying to you?). I come with evidence. Before I present the evidence, I’ll list several ideal qualities of a very good book title. I don’t mean that it’s easy to come up with a good title, because it certainly is not, but these are ideas to be aspired toward, except by modern writers, apparently.
1) A title should be interesting for its own sake when you see it. It should make you pay attention.
2) It should have some relationship to the book.
3) It should, in the best circumstances, be euphonious in some way, so that it simply sounds good by itself.
4) Ideally, it should be so unique that when you hear it, you don’t think of anything else except that book.
The ubiquitous one-word titles that we see so many of now do not even try to do these things, other than perhaps number 2 in a super vague way. My evidence for this pathetic situation comes from one of the bibles of contemporary publishing, the magazine Publisher’s Weekly, which contains long lists of new books each week. After a few months of looking at the magazine, I realized that on the whole the titles of nonfiction books were remarkably better than those of literary fiction. All the titles I list below are from books that are currently out.
Here are several nonfiction titles: Ten Billion Tomorrows, The Birth of Pathological Technology, The Reason for Flowers, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood, When the Sick Rule the World. It might be argued that most of these title are followed by a semicolon and a subtitle that explains what the book is about, but that actually makes the point. The titles I’ve cited here are meant to catch your attention, and they do.
For comparison, let’s see some titles from one of the categories of genre fiction, mystery/thriller. They’re not as broad-ranging and perhaps not as interesting as nonfiction, but they’re not bad either: The Hanging Girl, Come Hell or Highball, When Somebody Kills You, Daughter of Ashes, Corridors of the Night.
From literary fiction, however, from the SERIOUS writers, look at this sad list (and I didn’t have to try very hard to do this, merely open Publisher’s Weekly and start writing them down): Fishbowl, The Clasp, The Wake, Eyes, Vertigo, The Prize. With slightly more imagination, though not much: After the Parade, Above the Waterfall, The Great Swindle, Number Zero.
I am not at all saying these are not good books. Some of them are probably very good, but they are all permanently marred by the bizarre unwillingness of the writer to come up with a decent title. Some literary writers do go to the trouble, as with Rules for Werewolves or A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns. A shockingly large number, however, do not.
It’s not that one-word titles have never been used before now (Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot), but that doesn’t mean they were a good idea. Compare these older book titles: The House of Mirth, The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Should Garcia Marquez have called his book Solitude instead? Do you really think that would be better?
Many of the writers whose books I’m citing could do great things with titles, if only they would be bothered to do it. If only.