The Trouble with Titles



Does this happen to you?:
Browsing through a list of new books you find find yourself discounting many of them solely on their titles. Banal, hackneyed, or trite phrases beg you to move on until some unique pairings of words or intriguing syllabic syntax draw you in, suddenly powerless under their spell.

After all, titles are one's first impression of an author's work. With so many of them out there in the world, and only a finite number of words in one's respective language, it only makes sense to discard the stale arrangements of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. How many books can one read with titles like  A Time for Killing, The Missing Girl, The Glory of Patriots; or any number of generic mutation? I'll wager many books with bad titles are actually exemplary and worth reading, but how would one  know?

So what's preferable as titles go?

  • Single words or proper nouns usually catch the eye. Think of Ulysses, Psycho, Dune, Lolita, Hamilton, Beloved, Loving to name a few. As long as the word is not so common as say Socks, Bathroom, Taxes, the single word title usually is compelling enough to attract one's attention.
  • A specific person, place or thing such as: Don Quixote, 2666 (numbers are good), The Da Vinci Code, The World According to Garp, The Bridges of Madison County, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It piques the reader's interest to learn of some potentially unexplored niche the writer wishes to share
  • Odd or seemingly paradoxical combinations of words or phrases like Pale Fire, Lord of the Flies, A Confederacy of Dunces, A Clockwork Orange, Hillbilly Elegy. Titles suchlike kind of make you look twice, forcing you to read the jacket flap text to satisfy your curiosity. 
  • Quotes ripped from the Bible, poetry, and other texts: The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Besides pointing the reader to additional and related material, these titles may evoke many memories and a whole slew of emotions depending on one's own life experience.
  • And of course let's not forget the series derived titles usually employed in genre writing like A is for Alibi [letters of the alphabet], Fearless Fourteen (a Stephanie Plum Novel) [numbers], Along Came a Spider (Alex Cross) [nursery rhyme lines], and on and on. These devices must also serve as some sort of a motivation for the author.

There are exceptions. E.E. Cummings for instance always titled his poems with the first line therein, a trademark. Publishers may want to take advantage of current trends to sell their product. The use of the word "Girl" was a recent trend; also the long, superlative and negative title varieties such as All the Light We Cannot See and Everything I Never Told You.  And of course, once a writer is well established these fabricated rules of mine diminish. The author, rather, becomes the impetus of interest. But if you are looking for a virgin voice, something fresh and new, it helps if the author (or the publisher) has put some thought and creativity into the title of their work.

Comments