You can judge a book by its title

When I finally completed my novel, I felt nothing but relief. Then I had to give it a name -- twice

Topics: The Weeklings, literature, Brant Rumble, Double Feature, Nick Flynn, ,

You can judge a book by its title
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings IT GENERALLY TAKES awhile to write a novel. Although there are authors who can write a quality book every year, they’re the exceptions; it’s more typical to spend three, five, or even seven years to complete a draft. If you’ve never attempted to write anything of a novel’s length, imagine having a friend or relative visit you for roughly that length of time, for three or five or seven years. Imagine a person, a person with whom you are not enjoying anything like traditional sexual congress, leaving their little hairs and toenail clippings in your sink, sprinkling their droplets of pee on your toilet seat, cluttering your surfaces with their weird pocket stuff, sticking things in the wrong cabinets, being underfoot and distracting you constantly for three or five or seven years. Let’s be honest: even if it was your favorite cousin, and even though you sort of invited him, after a year or so, you would owe it to yourself to give, at minimum, tacit consideration to murdering this person. This is the unique affliction of writing books: the endeavor is such that you can never entirely stop thinking about it. Picture the houseguest that is your novel, day after day, chewing cereal with his mouth open, his butt cratering the seat of your favorite armchair, and you will begin to understand.

After your houseguest/novel does finally stomp all his dirty underwear down into his duffel bag, after his stupid buddy with the flatbed arrives to drag off the piece of shit four-wheeler that has been sitting dead in the middle of garage, after your houseguest/novel/ hemorrhoid finally has it together enough to decamp and set up in a place of his own– i.e. a publishing house – the relief you feel will likely open the gates to feelings of magnanimity. The memories of the good times – that one scene that clicked on the first pass, that passage that said so much more than your ever hoped – may become foremost, but it should be self-evident that such pleasure depends on the book being out the door. Here lies the major portion of the unhappiness that so often attends the editing of any novel: with the son-of-a-bitch finally gone, you don’t want him crashing on your couch again, not even for a weekend.



My own most recent editing experience was, as editing experiences go, joyous as opposed to arduous. As extraneous plot threads were trimmed away and particular scenes were fleshed out, I felt the novel sharpening. I did not agree with my editor Brant Rumble on every issue, but I agreed with him on most, and where we disagreed, Brant never sighed once, let alone attempted to badger me into doing what he wanted. It was, basically, the ideal development process, an unhurried and thoughtful examination of the novel from top to bottom, not so far from my dream of what it would be like to publish a book.

Until, that is, I was told that my novel, which had been called Reenactment ever since I began to write it five or seven years earlier, was going to have to be called something else. The acclaimed poet and memoirist Nick Flynn, whose latest book, The Reenactments, was scheduled to appear roughly three months prior to my own, had scooped me. For nearly seven years I had lived with a book, had been frustrated to real tears by it, been made crazy by it, been made profoundly wearied and wearying by it, and now it turned out I no longer even knew the thing’s name.

~

The abandoned titles of some celebrated novels are, retrospectively, not merely inconceivable, but inconceivably awful. It is incomprehensible that either The High-Bouncing Lover (The Great Gatsby)1 or A Failed Entertainment (Infinite Jest) could ever have been seriously considered2. Though these examples don’t deserve too much attention except as permanent, soothing exhibits on display in The Museum of the Relativity of Genius, to point out the obvious: the former sounds like a romance novel condemned to eternity in the ten-cent box at the local library sale, and the latter like a warning one would be wise to heed.

In other cases, however, it can be difficult to separate our long-held first impression of a title with a forebear that we learn about later.

Dickens’s original working title for Little Dorrit was the entirely acceptable and arguably superior Nobody’s Fault. While I prefer the mirroring double consonants ofLittle Dorrit and the anchoring of the book to the character that is the swivel for most of the action, I can’t discount the appeal of Nobody’s Fault. This title gestures bitterly toward the novel’s many festering injustices, from the debtor prison system to the feckless “Circumlocution Office.” Nobody’s Fault stings with a single, sharp point, while Little Dorrit expands to touch upon the entire plot. If the title had been different, one would have to read the book somewhat differently.

The same cannot be said about Heller’s Catch-22, which was previously Catch-18. If the alliterative ring of “twenty-two” gives the ultimate title an edge, it’s obtuse to argue that the book’s impact would have been altered by the choice of a different number. Catch-73 would have been fine – except that we know that the novel is Catch-22. Because of this, any other “catch” rattles around in the mind, annoying as loose change trapped in the hollow of a car’s undercarriage.

The first question that faced any new title I came up with was nothing less than this: In what ways, better or worse, might it change a reader’s interpretation of the novel? Or, as in the case of the various Catches, would the effect of the alternate title be negligible?

I recently inquired among some novelist acquaintances, and the answers I received, both about the commonness of a request for and an acquiescence to, a new title, and the resulting titles themselves, would have come in handy a few months ago when the issue arose. One immediately helpful aspect of these title-change stories is that, while every single novel mentioned here is a fine work by an outstanding author, none of them are legendary – they’re not Catch-22. Maybe they will be someday, but right now, because the titles of these contemporary novels haven’t hardened, it’s possible to consider them with clear eyes.
My non-scientific interpretation of the responses has led me to determine that there are three major reasons3 why publishers ask novelists to retitle their books:

1. First Impressions: Conflicting Titles

My problem, the problem of Reenactment and The Reenactments, the problem of a conflicting title, must be near the top of any list of rationales of a title change. It’s the same reason why Catch-22 wasn’t Catch-18 – because of the potential for a mix-up with the like-numbered novel Mila-18.

The novelist Stewart O’Nan was asked to change the title of his novel Upstate because of a dueling YA novel of the same name by Kalisha Buckhanon. Though the novel, which O’Nan retitled as The Good Wife, went on to be published to considerable acclaim, the change unquestionably narrows one’s initial impression of book. What was big – a title that indicated the main character’s husband’s imprisonment and the place of that imprisonment and, maybe most of all, the sense of “away-ness” that attends the term “upstate” in our minds – took on the appearance of something more particular, i.e. the portrait of a single character.

What’s a little odd, outwardly, about this particular conflict is that the respective novels were clearly marketed toward different groups, Buckhanon’s toward a YA audience and O’Nan’s toward an adult audience. But if you consider a modern reader’s heavy reliance on online search engines, a publisher’s concern becomes defensible. Suppose that in the morning a person reads a positive review of O’Nan’s Upstate, scribbles a note to herself to order the book from Powell’s that night, forgets the author’s surname in the interim, and ends up ordering the Buckhanon novel instead, or vice versa. The logic here isn’t conclusive, but it is explicable. In the result of such a tie, as I myself have learned, the title must go to the author whose book is published first.

Another example of this phenomenon shows that sometimes a novel can be renamed with virtually no implications for the text: Hannah Tinti’s debut novel was for a very long time Resurrection Men, when an identically named Ian Rankin novel led her to retitle the book as The Good Thief. In this instance, she quickly warmed to the new title, which she notes, “pulled out the same themes [as Resurrection Men]” by referring to “St. Dismas, who was crucified with Christ on Golgotha.” If the titles don’t dovetail precisely – the earlier title is a bit lurid, the final title quite romantic – they are at least fraternal twins.

2. A Handful of Ashes: Creative Differences

Another common impetus for a title change is if an author’s publisher/editor/marketing department simply doesn’t like it. Here, the arguments for and against are often exceedingly subjective.

  • Binnie Kirshenbaum’s 2009 novel The Scenic Route was originally titled A River of Things. From the publisher’s perspective, A River of Things was “too vague.” By comparison, “the scenic route” is an appealing phrase, and it can bring up associations both good and bad, of being on a jaunt and of being lost. The vagueness of the original title gets under your skin, though. What “things” are in the river? The lack of specificity is, to this reader, intriguing.
  • David Yoo’s 2008 YA novel Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before was written under the title Afterschool Special. But Yoo’s publisher made the potent (and, as a child of the 80’s, let me add, tragic) case that the concept of the “afterschool special” was unknown to contemporary young adults. If he was unable to find another title that was quite as on the nose – the book is a brilliant play on any number of teenage clichés – Yoo had to grant that the argument was a sound one. “So,” he reveals, “I did what countless writers in similar circumstances have done before me, and in the eleventh hour picked a Smiths song title.”
  • Peter Abrahams’s 1985 novel Red Messages was shortened by a single letter to just Red Message. The theory here was that the plural title was “literary,” while the singular version was “thrillery,” and Abrahams was being marketed as a “thriller writer.” If we accept the marketing calculation – i.e. thriller writer vs. literary writer – one has to draw the conclusion that the plural implied, to some minds, simply missives written in red, whereas the singular would be an act of violence. The determination isn’t obvious. From another perspective, if one “red message” is alarming, then shouldn’t multiple “red messages” be even more titillating?
  • Devils in the Sugar Shop, Timothy Schaffert’s masterful 2007 farce about the travails of a cast of bed-hopping Nebraskans, was written under the amazing sobriquet, Sex Parties in Omaha. The question here was, Can you get readers to pick up a book called Sex Parties in Omaha? I hope we are all agreed that in a humane world the answer to that question should be a resounding, YES! Schaffert’s publisher needed to consider the realities, though – Sex Parties might scare away some readers. Schaffert countered with The Lip of the Lily, drawing on the name of a sex toy that played an important role in the novel, which his editor “thought [was] even more troubling.” Devils in the Sugar Shop came along third, a reference to the line of sex toys – e.g. Sugar Shop products. Though Schaffert lost a clockstopper of an original title, the one he ended up with does have a lovely ring, and more importantly, extends a clearer hint of the novel’s essential lightheartedness.

3. Something That Happened: The Untitled

There are, finally, those novels that find their way to publication with only a working title.

Amber Dermont knew that her novel about a prep school sailor needed a title that gestured seaward. It was, originally, Sail On, Silver Girl. Her teacher, the late Barry Hannah, though very high on the book as a whole, decreed, “Amber, you can’t name a book after a song lyric.”4  The jettisoning of Sail On, Silver Girl gave way to the predicament of  “so many of the best and most poetic phrases [having been] already used – Compass RoseSailing Alone Around the World, Master and Commander.” This led Dermont to briefly title the book, The Apparent Wind, a name that she soon discarded “for obvious flatulent reasons.” Later, she tried Prosper’s Confession, a play on the name of her main character, Jason Prosper, cast that off in favor of The Prosperous Ones, and then gave that up, too, because of Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, which seemed like the same title, only better. The Wheel of Titles only came to a halt when, for obscure reasons, Dermont sent an email to her editor with the subject heading, “Starboard.” Her novel, at last, had a title: The Starboard Sea, which was “not an actual nautical term but rather a term one of the characters makes up and defines.”

The title had been there in the text all along; it had just taken awhile to find it.

~

My takeaway from these examples is that, while it’s unusual for a novel to lose its title and end up being published under a definitively superior title, it’s equally rare for a novel to lose its title and be published under a definitively worse title. Save for Amber Dermont’s wonderful The Starboard Sea (which did not replace another title so much as fill a space that had been waiting for it), no “new” title absolutely drubs its predecessor(s). Among the rejected titles mentioned here, there’s certainly not an A Failed Entertainment in the bunch. If it’s a given that one title is not as good as any other title – i.e. The High-Bouncing Lover gets an F in comparison to pretty much anything else you can think of – we can also tentatively submit to the notion that there is probably at least one title that is roughly as good as one other title.

Another terribly important, sometimes elusively obvious thing to realize is that, although you may have lived with the title as long as you’ve lived with the novel, although in your mind it may be inextricably linked with the novel, it is secondary. The title doesn’t matter without the novel, whereas the novel will still be a novel without it. The title is in service to its novel.

A belated question: what does a successful title do?

Answer: In the same way that there can be more than one way into a house –front door, back door, window, garage, basement, secret bootleggers’ tunnel, etc. – the entry point provided by a title can lead us inside a book from many different angles.  A title can forthrightly declare its main character (Little Dorrit), or name its mystery (Infinite Jest), make a relevant literary connection (Of Mice and Men), or highlight its themes (Sense and Sensibility). The title is crucial, but never irreplaceable.

Perhaps O’Nan’s The Good Wife should have stayed Upstate. It’s nevertheless a marvelous work of fiction and the title doesn’t harm it. In fact, The Good Wife is such a profound work that I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday, the notion that it was originally to have been called something else will be unapproachable. A published title is the safest stock in the world. It never stops gaining interest.

In other words, what I failed to immediately grasp was that my book was going to end up being, basically, what it always had been, for better or for ill. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to come up with a title as great as the one I had before, but something that was at minimum “okay” was going to come to the surface.

Which is exactly what happened – except that I got way better than “okay.”

Before the request to retitle Reenactment could send me into utter, teddy bear-clutching despair, my editor, the supernaturally mellow Brant Rumble, quickly sent me an email the contents of which were nothing but two words

DOUBLE FEATURE

Reenactment had brushed nicely against multiple elements of the story – a broken film with a second life, a mismatched father and son with weirdly parallel lives, a true crime show that “reenacted” the dying moments of its subjects – and yet, almost immediately, it was obvious that Double Feature was better. It was a bigger title, yet also a crisper title. My main characters were a double feature: two filmmakers, father and son, antagonistic and complimentary, observed in the past and in the present.

I recently read Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and its rewarding companion volume, The Reenactments, about the making of the film based on the earlier book. Both memoirs are beautiful, disturbing, and inspiring, I recommend them without reserve, and I feel very sorry about the rage I briefly harbored toward Mr. Flynn, who is a great, great writer5.

The title of the first book is drawn directly from the mouth of Flynn’s long-absent father, a man who is hideous and tragic and perhaps a genius. The title is like Flynn’s father, I think – awful and amazing both. In an epilogue to the book that is shaped as a series of questions, to the query “Do you feel you shot yourself in the foot with the title?” Flynn replies, wisely, with a blank space:               .

Later, the film adaptation Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was released as Being Flynn.

  1. On the subject of famous novels and their lost titles, check out these nifty lists from Flavorwire and Buzzfeed
  2. The all-time clunker of a discarded movie title is Woody Allen’s original handle for Annie HallAnhedonia. Presenting a main character as the personification of a debilitating syndrome maybe loads the deck a bit too much, right? 
  3. In truth, there are four. I’ve decided to omit the subject of titles that were changed on strictly legal grounds, such as Don Delillo’s White Noise, which was originally titled Panasonic. The issues here are so complex – stretching beyond the legal and into a discussion of art v. commerce – that it warrants a separate space. I’ve also forgone digging into the equally fascinating but somewhat different subject of novels that are retitled for translation into other languages. 
  4. Dermont points out, with far more delight than chagrin, that Hannah’s final novel was titled Yonder Stands Your Orphan. 
  5. Specifically: I am not proud of having suggested, prior to Brant’s coming to the rescue, that we exchange Reenactment for Nick Flynn Fucked Me. 

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