What's in a Title?

I doubt readers often pause to wonder how a novel came by its title. Occasionally a title might invite a question, either because it’s obscure (The Quincunx) or archly complicated (The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B). But for the most part we leave a book’s title in peace, as we do a jam jar label.  We’re more interested in tasting the jam.

Nevertheless, there can be a lot of discussion between author and publisher when it comes to deciding a title, and this is extra-complicated when there is more than one publisher in different territories.  That is precisely why my new (third) addition to the Cragg and Fidelis series has a split identity. In the U.K. it will be published by Constable, in March 2015, as The Scrivener; in America, after a lot of debate, Minotaur Books have gone for a different title: The Hidden Man.  I like both titles equally, but it got me thinking about the whole business of titling novels.

For the first exponents of the English novel, titles were not a problem. Almost all of these early fictions pretended to be accounts of the lives of actual people and were named accordingly. In practice they would just go by the significant name or eponym – Robinson Crusoe – though they would be formally called The Life of… or The Adventures of… That wasn’t all, however, since titles often incorporated what we know today as the Publisher’s Blurb. Defoe’s most popular title in fact came out, in 1719, as The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner: who lived eight and twenty years, all alone in an un-inhabited island on the coast of America, near the mouth of the great river of Oroonoque, written by himself.

The naming of novels after their protagonists continued, even when any pretence of authenticity had been dropped. So we had The Life and Adventures of Tom Jones, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. But by this time some authors, borrowing the idea from the theatre, were providing either/or titles: the protagonist’s name, and a succinct indication of the novel’s theme. The 18th century’s biggest-selling novel was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.

By the end of the century – Jane Austen’s time – the conceptual title had asserted as the equal of the eponymic title, so that Pride and Prejudice was a no more remarkable title than Emma.  The bare one-word title also came into vogue, as in Persuasion, though in this case Austen (or her publisher, since it was issued after her death) wisely did without the multiple exclamation marks added to the contemporaneous Prodigious!!! and Astonishment!!!.   It had also at this time become quite fashionable to include a question mark in a title, as in Margaret Sarah Croker’s The Question: Who is Anna? and Barbara Hofland’s Who is the Bridegroom?or Nuptial Discoveries.

By the mid -19th century the evocative, cadenced title had arrived. There were some corkers: Vanity Fair, The Old Curiosity Shop, Wuthering Heights, Can You Forgive Her?, The Last Days of Pompeii, Far from the Madding Crowd.  Then, in the 20th century, titles from poetry became increasingly desirable, maximizing evocativeness and providing ready-made cadence. Three rich sources were much mined: Biblical (Aaron’s Rod, East of Eden, The Power and the Glory, Vile Bodies), poetical (For Whom the Bells Tolls, A Handful of Dust, Tender is the Night) and above all Shakespearean. Wikipedia’s list of 25 novels, with titles taken from Hamlet alone, must be a fraction of the total.  

Punning titles, and ones that twist the original quote, are also a twentieth century habit. Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die is self-explanatory for a thriller; Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall asks you to look again, where you will soon discover that this very funny but cynical debut is not about the Roman Empire, but social butterflies with Oxford Bags and nasty habits.  

Some authors have lasting trouble with titles. In America, Richard Hughes’s great novel A High Wind in Jamaica was published as The Innocent Voyage, which may have been more appropriate to the story as a whole, but it’s a lot less memorable (and is indeed now forgotten). William Faulkner called his early novel, inoffensively, The Wild Palms. His publishers thought this lacked gravitas, and changed it to the cumbersome If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, from the Psalms of David. It wasn’t until he had acquired the clout of a Nobel prizewinner that Faulkner was able to change it back. Dorothy L. Sayers had the opposite problem with her third Peter Wimsey novel. She wanted it to be called The Singular Case of the Three Spinsters, while her publishers thought Unnatural Death had more punch; they were right, and had their way. Readers may be thankful, too, to another opinionated publisher. Hearing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proposed title for his latest short novel, Trimalchio in West Egg, they thought it not a little clunky and came up with a better name – The Great Gatsby.


Posted on February 27th, 2015


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