A Good Title Is Hard to Find

When the Kardashian sisters announced on their website that they were writing a novel, publisher William Morrow described the book as the story of “three gorgeous celebrity sisters, their complicated relationships with Hollywood, each other and the glamorous lives they lead in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.” I know, not much of a stretch. However, the sisters were apparently having trouble coming up with a good title, and so they decided to sponsor a contest for their novel-in-progress. On their website Kimmy Kardashian explained: “We thought it would be super fun if we asked our fans to name the book! We couldn’t decide on a title, and we know how creative you guys are.”

This contest was certainly a publicity stunt to generate interest in a ghost-written celebrity book event (eventually called Dollhouse) that was designed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Still, the Sisters K (now that might have been a good title) were on to something. Writing a book is hard, but sometimes coming up with the right title is harder.

Often, the words of the title are the last words a writer commits to in a short story, essay or a novel, and they can arrive only after some brain busting contemplation. Even the greatest writers have had to develop their titling instincts. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was originally All’s Well That Ends Well. And John Steinbeck’s original try for Of Mice and Men sounds as though he was ready to give it all up: Something That Happened. It’s hard to imagine anyone would be willing to crack the cover of a book with such a wan, decaffeinated title.

Other great books took quite a circuitous route before arriving at the moniker with which we’re all familiar. For example, The Great Gatsby had eight working titles, none of them very promising:

Incident at West Egg
Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio in West Egg
On the Road to West Egg
Gold-hatted Gatsby
The High-bouncing Lover
Under the Red White and Blue

In retrospect, it’s easy to laugh at early title drafts because the final choice is so apt it’s hard to entertain any alternate. And yet, all authors have to finally arrive at that perfect title, and sometimes the ones we jettison along the way help get us there. Eric Puchner, writing in The Rumpus, says “when it comes to the writing process, sometimes a bad title can help you more than a good one . . . I’ve heard students tell me they come up with their titles first, before they have the slightest notion of a plot. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as they’re willing to give up their ‘creative title’ when it no longer serves the story.”

In other words, even an inadequate title can lead you into the mysterious territory of the as yet unwritten. Eventually, as an initial title’s power weakens, and grows dim, this is the sign to search for another, or to patiently wait for a new one to appear out of the ongoing writing. The title isn’t merely a billboard advertising your product, it is inextricably linked to the ongoing creation of your story or essay.

So why do titles seem to be the neglected stepchild of workshop discussions? Rarely is the efficacy of a title examined at length in writing workshops. In all my years of teaching, I can recall just a few really detailed discussions of the title of the work in question. Most often, the title isn’t mentioned at all. Yet titles often pull far more than their weight in a reader’s experience and understanding of a literary work, and in myriad ways they can give depth and, for prose writers, come the closest we ever get to writing poetry. An apt title can be an x-ray of your story’s hidden heart, expanding the possibilities of all that remains unsaid.

I think one reason why few people bring up this issue in workshop is that, since we’ve all been through the agonies of drawing out a title that refuses to be found, we understand how personal the process is. I wonder if other writers feel on some unconscious level that finding a title is a conversation best kept between a writer and her story or essay or novel. In some ways, it’s like the intimate process of naming a child. Naming a child might actually be easier, though every parent probably remembers poring for days, even weeks through one of those How To Name Your Child books. Though this may be one of the most important acts of titling you’ll ever do in your life, when all is said and done, as a last resort you can always name your unborn son after Uncle Bob. Try doing that with a novel: Bob. Not so catchy.

As with naming our children, we’re uncomfortable if a work of art goes too long without a title; something seems wrong, incomplete. I remember the horror I felt when friends of mine told me that, two weeks later, they still hadn’t named their infant daughter. To me, it seemed as if the child was still waiting to be born.

Similar to naming a child, with a title you’re naming a work of art that is at the same time a part of yourself, offering that hitherto unknown territory within you some definition, a sly definition that has built within it more than one interpretation, so that this title, this work of art, will find a place outside you.

The great Brazilian writer, Clarisse Lispector, had so much trouble coming up with the title of her last novel that she listed, on the frontispiece, the thirteen possibilities she had entertained while writing.

(Click to enlarge image)

Some of these are clearly working titles, ideas about the book she was writing, about a sickly and naïve working class shop girl in northern Brazil. In some, the author seems to be recording her despair about the writing process itself. And yet, in the end, she chose a title that captures the attention with its poetry, and yet explains nothing—for that, you have to read the book: The Hour of the Star. It’s typical of Lispector to share her frustration about the process of finding a title. In this novel in particular she comments on the proceedings, including a wonderful passage in which she tries for several pages to decide whether or not she should let one of the characters, who has been hit by a car, die or not. So in a sense, that title page is true to the book’s spirit, which is in many ways about authorial creation and indecision.

The website Better Book Titles offers the snarky literary equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking. At this website, people can post alternate, more “accurate” titles for famous books.

Instead of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde, this novel is now Never Stab a Magic Painting

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca becomes So I Married a Definite Wife-Murderer

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: This Fate Could Have Been Avoided If She had a Sassy Gay Friend

Melville’s Billy Budd: Jesus Would Not Last Long in the Navy

Ian McEwen’s Atonement: Kids Say the Darndest Things

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Butlers Can’t Share Their Feelings

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol: Rich People Deserve Second Chances

There’s a truth that can be learned from this very incomplete list. These alternate titles are actually terrible (which is why they’re so funny) because they sum up the contents too well. They give too much away, like those trailers for movies we immediately know we’ll never see.

The best title serves as an ambiguous invitation. It should offer something true about your book that at the same time can’t quite be said. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, by Raymond Carver, is perhaps one of the more classic titles in recent American fiction. It has such an elegant structure, those two, nearly identical halves

What we talk about
When we talk about

culminating in the word love.

Nine words, and all but two (the repeated “about”) are monosyllables. The simplicity of the language echoes the short story collection’s aesthetic too, for this is of course a work of minimalist fiction. And yet that last word, love, complicates everything, maximalizes the title. “Love” is a big subject, and what we talk about, when we talk about it, is not clear from the title. You have to read the book to find out, and you can be sure that there won’t be only one “what,” connected to this bottomless subject. One way to get a better sense of the power of Carver’s title is to contemplate the variations you can find nearly anywhere.

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow” is the title for an excellent essay on the subject of prose rhythm by David Jauss, from his craft book Alone with All that Could Happen. But you can also find, with a quick Google search, What We Talk about When We Talk about

Raising taxes
The weather
Not having kids

These variations are all homages to the classic original, but they have little or none of the poetry (with the exception of the Jauss title); instead, they are informational, as they were intended to be. They narrow the focus of attention. Carver’s title in contrast opens it up, with an implied promise of multiple revelation. Carver, remember, was also a fine poet.

But titling fiction, nonfiction or poetry contains as infinitude of approaches, as well as dangers. An indifferent title can be your essay’s tombstone. An overly flashy title can be a garish neon sign that distracts from the goods in the window. And of course there is no single path to lead you to a final decision.

Sometimes, a title can also set up an anticipation that may or may not be met, which may ironically encourage the reader to see the complexities that can’t be contained by the title. A short story recently published by John Warner in the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter has a mouthful of a title: “Return to Sensibility Problems After Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report.” The dry, reportorial nature of this title is undermined by the voice of the narrator, an inspector who slowly becomes undone by the realities and ambiguities of dealing out death in the slaughterhouse–by the end, it becomes increasingly unlikely that this very official-sounding report will ever be submitted.

Gloria Sawai, in her collection The Song of Nettie Johnson, has another great stem-winder of a title, though its effects are quite different from the Warner story: “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.” This is a title that will capture your attention, and sets up a number of questions before you read the first sentence of the story. Is the narrator joking, or seriously delusional? Are we as readers meant to believe in this spiritual event? And if so, what the hell then happens after that wind arrives? Will Jesus behave like a gentleman?

Titles can be so elusive, so frustrating to pin down because they are a concentrated form of the originality and revelation we seek in our writing, the fragile creatures of our imagination that must be named, but not reduced. They must be named in a way that allows them to breathe, and to breathe in tandem with a reader. Sad to say, you’re not likely to be able to rely on your workshop mates for much help. Only you the author know just what secrets lie embedded in your text, just what distillation of words, in the guise of a title, might give those secrets voice, what might best represent the complicated freedom of your book’s irreducible self.

This post is an abridged version of a craft lecture (titled “To Kill a Great Gatsby in Cold Blood or, A Good Title Is Hard to Find”) that I first delivered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts on June 29, 2011. During the lecture, the audience and I collaborated on an entry for the Kardashian contest. We came up with Beyond Spanx, which, unfortunately, was not chosen.

For a personal account of an author struggling to find just the right title, see Erika Dreifus’ thoughtful essay “What’s in a Title?” at The Center for Fiction.

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January 29th, 2012 by admin