The title in a story is like a person’s face: often the first thing you notice, and the first thing that either catches your attention or leaves you cold.
A title that doesn’t fit can burden a book or a film with the expectations it raises. It can also carry it an extra mile. Ask Steven Soderbergh and his Sex, Lies and Videotape (which of course started the 90s trend of trifecta titles, as in “This thing, That thing and also that other thing“).
In the earliest human narratives, titles are often descriptive to the point of minimalism. The Epic of Gilgamesh is pretty much that: the story of the adventures of the eponymous Summerian hero. The Iliad is a beautiful word because we’ve known it for 2,500 years and it feels familiar as a mother’s face. But all it means is “the story about Ilion”, or Troy, the same way the word Odyssey didn’t use to carry all the meanings we ascribe it nowadays, but merely was “the story of Odysseus”, or Ulysses.
The first title with a real commercial hook I can think of is Ovid‘s Ars amatoria. It is the equivalent of those paperback covers where Fabio the model passes his arm around the waist of a duchess with a burning mane and an orgasmic expression on her face: you inevitably pick up the book and leaf through it (in Ovid’s time I guess you’d unroll the parchment), to see what you might find.
Shakespeare wasn’t one for straining himself looking for a title, when it came to his tragedies and history dramas. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is about a prince from Denmark whose name is Hamlet, and it all ends tragically. Richard III‘s protagonist is Richard, Third of his name, and Macbeth‘s Macbeth. Henry the Fourth parts one and two does somewhat trick us, as it grants protagonism to Hal, the son of the king in the title, and the future Henry V. The comedies on the other hand don much more colourful titles, such as All’s Well that Ends Well, As you Like It, or What you Will (the alternative title to Twelfth Night), all of which sound like a Status Quo title, or a Clint Eastwood film where he costarred with an orangutan…
The prize to the most deceiving title in post-Elizabethan theatre goes to John Ford‘s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which suggests one of those 70s misogynistic comedies so popular in Spain, Italy and other countries, where ugly, hairy guys chased after buxom ladies in negliglées down hospital corridors, but it actually is a tragedy of incestuous love and bloody revenges which boasts a higher body count than Hamlet.
A Title Wave
Not until the arrival of the Romantic movement and the boom of novels did writers take in earnest shopping for a title that was intriguing, and that added some extra information about the story beyond the name of the hero or heroine, and thus made the reader go and open the bloody book. As writers essayed all sorts of strategies to title their masterpieces, many and varied tendencies appeared. I’ll give a few examples so that you get the picture:
The Binary Title
This type of title always works, because even if the potential reader or viewer doesn’t like one of the elements, s/he might like the other one, and so choose to buy the book, or watch the film. This way we double our chances to connect. Of course, you shouldn’t overdo this. A title like Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes might give you the impression of covering all the bases, but it’s also a mouthful, and suggest the author couldn’t quite decide where to put the focus.
It’s a good book, though.
The Biblical Title
The Biblical title was all the rage for a few years in American literature, especially during the Great Depression, when many novels and plays told truculent stories of utter misery and squalor, which reminded you of stories from the Bible, such as the plagues of Egypt and generally speaking all the creative ways Jehovah found to fuck his Chosen People up, and by Chosen I mean air quote chosen air quote.
And speaking of everything, did you know that the photographs by Walker Evans that illustrated James Agee‘s Let us Praise Now Famous men are in public domain? At least they are in the US, as they had been commissionned by the Federal Government, and therefore he was a public servant when he took them. Isn’t it wonderful that such beauties belong to the public?
The Shakespearean Title
Leave Her to Heaven, The Winter of our Discontent, Brave New World, North by Northwest, To Be or Not to Be, The Sound and the Fury, Pale Fire, Something Wicked this Way Comes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Time out of Joint, The Fault in our Stars, almost anything by Javier Marías…
The Shakespearean title is the secular alternative to the Biblical title. In an ironic twist on “do as I say, not as I do”, the dude who brought us titles like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra is everywhere providing titles to desperate authors. All you have to do is open his works on any page, point a line at random and lo! you’ve got a cool title for your story. What? You don’t believe me? Let’s give it a try:
(Opens book of Shakespeare’s complete works)
Page 347. King John. (Wow, an obscure one, even more challenging)
Line at random. This one by example:
“To tread down fair respect of sovereignty”
Okay, it’s not sexy, but it works, I can work with that. We clip it a bit, leave it as Fair Respect of Sovereignty, and it’s ready for John Grisham to stick a 600-page doorstop to it about a judiciary scandal that involves the Royal Family (any royal family will do).
See? Too bad we didn’t choose the one a couple of lines above that, which reads:
She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John
That’s Shakespeare for you, he grabs the adjective “adulterate” and turns it into a verb, and on the side provides a title to a sleazier version of Cold Comfort Farm.
The Impressionistic Title
The Red and the Black, Far from the Madding Crowd, Good-Bye to All That, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nada, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Cities, The Age of Innocence, Life: A User’s Manual, Domar a la divina garza, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Gravity’s Rainbow, Hopscotch,
The impressionist title tries to capture, or suggest, the core of the story. When it achieves its goal, the outcome is a memorable title that sometimes enters everyday’s language. When it doesn’t, well… it just doesn’t.
The “aw fuck it, I can’t think up shit!” title
If you’re out of ideas for your title, just write down anything. Someone will come up with a clever interpretation, sooner or later. Or use Shakespeare.
The Aspirants for the Title
A title can be either a sackcloth mask or a plume made of peacock feathers. Raymond Chandler was an expert in disguising the elegance of his writing behind titles that didn’t stand out among paperback reprints from the pulp era.
Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, on the other hand, betray their anxieties about being taken very seriously with florid titles straight out of the Ecclesiastes (The Sun Also Rises, but hey, lots of people end up calling it Fiesta), or English poets such as John Donne (For Whom the Bell Tolls)1 or John Keats (Tender is the Night).
The parallelism of their careers throughout the 1920s and a friendship that cooled as Hemingway’s star rose while Fitzgerald’s prospects waned suggest a rivalry for the throne of greatest author of the Lost Generation which may or may not have been real. In their lifetime, Hemingway seemed to have won the combat by K.O. While Fitzgerald drowned in alcohol and failure out in some Hollywood bungalow, Hemingway travelled the world, preferably wherever there was big game or a good war to write home about. And everything he wrote turned into gold.
But posterity is capricious, and as years went by the relative position of both in the American Writers canon has slowly slid until it inverted. Fitzgerald’s novels have become indisputable classics, whereas nowadays Hemingway’s are… well, disputable… Some people defend Hemingway’s ostentatiously laconic style to death, while others criticize his novels as overrated and prone to champion the kind of toxic masculinity that nowadays is regarded with revulsion.
1: In my opinion, Philip José Farmer was way more clever when he picked a verse by Donne to title To Your Scattered Bodies Go, his novel about the resurrection of the entire human rice in a strange planet. Farmer took it from the sonnet that starts like this:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go.
That final ‘go’ does the trick, just like the ‘or’ in Love’s “Alone Again Or”…
2: All the pictures are taken from Wikimedia, where they allegedly belong to public domain or are under Creative Commons licences. Fabio’s pic is copyrighted, and therefore can’t be seen. Sorry about that.
The Walker Evans collection of photographs is among the most extraordinary in the 20th century in the U.S. Theoretically it is in the public domain, but it might have reserved rights outside that country. I couldn’t find out in a Google search. I only use the picture for illustrative purposes, and I will remove it if it asked by a legal owner. But in the meantime, isn’t she cute? That’s Lucille Burroughs, the daughter of a cotton picker.
3: I’ve never included so many links in a single blog entry. I’m beat, guys. Please click on something, so that I don’t feel too stupid.