Posted by: oneyearbook | March 8, 2009

The Tyranny of Titles, Pt. I

The other day my boyfriend said that I really need to come up with a new working title for my novel. He thinks that Memory Game, which is what I have been referring to it as, is “so … obvious, mundane, juvenile … it sounds like a children’s fiction book. Written by a child, also. And edited by a monkey.” This is an exact quote.

The title is, in fact, left over from the (pretty bad) short story I wrote almost a decade ago that became the seeds of the plot of the current novel. As a title, it also has some structural and thematic significance, but unfortunately, although I don’t necessarily agree about “edited by a monkey,” it does sound a little like a genre thriller or some other sort of pulp. This is not my intention, even with a working title, so we set to work on the game of picking another working title.

In preparation for that, however, I started thinking about the types of titles I like (and don’t like). I wasn’t sure if there was any particular key to great titling, or any particular element that makes a title mediocre, at least to me. I pretty quickly determined that I’m not a fan of titles that are simply a character’s name or the name of another element (geographical, an object) in the book. Nabokov, for all that I love his books, has only one title that I find particularly enticing (Invitation to a Beheading), a series of what I see as mundane titles for flawless books (Lolita, Pale Fire), and a few, later in life, that I just don’t like (Look at the Harlequins). Some of this may be a function of when he wrote; looking at the greats from the earlier 20th Century, both Ulysses and The Great Gatsby have that type of title.

I do like titles that take fragments of poems or other writing and repurpose them: No Country for Old Men, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, etc. (Although I think A Handful of Dust is misused.) Umberto Eco’s titles are always fun – The  Name of the Rose, The Island of the Day Before – and seem to invite you to find out more about the books. Michael Chabon’s titles are fun – Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (using names is better if they’re given a context; it’s no good if it’s just called Kavalier & Clay) – and seem to invite you to take them home and enjoy them. Children’s literature has some of the best titles out there: Where the Wild Things Are (seriously, the title makes it a must-read) A Wrinkle in Time (isn’t that evocative?), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – there’s one where the naming of things/characters in the titles is elevated by the strange contrast between the three.

Among my own favorite books, I think I would tap Cloud Atlas as the best title in the bunch. It says so much about the book, but not in an obvious way. In searching that one on Amazon I discovered that there’s also a book called The Cloud Atlas that appears to have come out at around the same time. In that case, the description indicates that the title is perhaps more literal.

Of course, all of this is personal preference (the boyfriend says he likes The Living, while I don’t, particularly, although I think Dillard is a master hand with her non-fiction titling, and while I like Not Wanted on the Voyage, he doesn’t), so one can see that both the author, childlike or not, and the editor, monkey or no, have a battle ahead of them in choosing a title that invites interest, isn’t offputtingly strange, says something about the book … it’s all a delicate balancing act.

In a future post I’ll discuss my battle to find a good working title for my own book.

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