As Yet, Untitled

Nick’s last blog post about the titling of Inherent Vice inspired me to write a general piece about titles. But then a neon tube flickered, before sputtering out in a power short. While wafting away cathode gas, I vaguely recalled blogging about this topic before. A quick search through the Drugstore archives confirmed that I had. Twice.

My first post, nearly five years ago now, was mostly about the lack of control debut authors have over titles in legacy publishing. The second zeroed-in on a few formulas for making titles, ways of playing around with parts of speech to work a few a punchy lexical combos when you’re on the ropes.

And ‘work’ is the key word here. Full-length novels offer many title choices and working through them can be hard graft. If a writer’s lucky a title will light up, fully-formed, and stay switched on in their mind throughout the writing process. Cool beans. But we must be cautious: with repetition being a form of persuasion, it can become unthinkable to search for something better. In some cases, though, that title that’s been there from day one is the correct choice.

But sometimes the writer gets bored with those words at the top of the first page, sick of seeing them on the file names of story notes and characters. Deep down in her gut, she has a gnawing sensation that those words don’t quite say enough.

My preference is towards the poetic rather than the literal. Snakes on a Plane is wonderfully succinct – if you’re working in the action/comedy genre. It’s also unashamedly high-concept, like the movie it titles. But if your book’s themes are more nebulous (or cerebral) then summing up the plot in three or four words is probably not the way to go. Literary fiction doesn’t lend itself to literal titles.

As mentioned before, repetition is a form of persuasion, and a movie or book title acquires acceptance the more famous it becomes. To take another example from the movies, let’s look at Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. There are no reservoirs. There are no dogs (unless you count the heist crew, and I think many people do as the human brain seeks to make sense of why those two words should be given such importance). Various urban myths have grown around this movie’s title, yet Tarantino himself simply bats it away as “a mood title”. This, in turn, adds to its mythical aura. (Which, I guess, is artists’ privilege.) So then, the opaque title is definitely an option.

Becoming a magpie is another route. Many well-known writers have done it. The title of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is taken from The Beatle’s song Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) on their 1965 album Rubber Soul. Of course, Murakami took out his scalpel and cut loose that suffixed parenthetical (and then the bird inside those brackets was gone). Yet given that this is the favourite song of the protagonist and that there is much forest imagery in the book, the title is actually quite literal. But those two nouns stand alone with real power. To the reader without knowledge of story or characters, those words are loaded with many different possibilities.

Another example is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The title is adapted from a soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Faulkner added the definite articles, and by doing so (like a jazz band covering rock) made it his own:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

The Sound and the Fury. Shakespeare’s juxtaposition now becomes specific with the addition of definite articles, and we want to know ‘which sound?’, ‘what fury?’. Faulkner edited his way to something ethereal. Without knowing a single thing about the book, the title makes it pop off the shelf and into your hand.

And that, to me, is a great title.


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One Comment

  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted November 4, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    An interesting look at titles here, P. What stands out most is how good titles appear in hindsight once a work has been established, especially publicly. My own approach has been to list a number of options and then let my unconscious sort it all out. I think that although it’s a good idea not to let your initial choice acquire too much status in your own mind, it’s probably best not to mess around with it too much either. As always, the balance between is what’s hard to achieve.

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