Titular Traps & Trappings

This is one of those non book reviews you find only on The Horse, where we throw up our hands at the thought of reading, much less analyzing, the millions of books being published willy-nilly these days. It’s beginning to look like Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, with an infinite number of books in random order.

So here are two novels, both by Tom Rackman: The Imperfectionists and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. We’ll have to assume the novels are good because we don’t intend to read them, and we don’t want to be surly. What we wanted to note here were the titles, and the author’s explanations for them.

We’re wondering, why would anyone launch into reading a novel born in an aesthetic universe where these pass for acceptable titles?

Well, I’ll tell you why, says the author. He just penned a thousand-word guide on how to arrive at such brilliant names for your books that everyone thinks your fictions are nonfiction rehashes of the Cold War. To would-be novelists with too much time on their hands and too little imagination, here indeed are the keys to the kingdom.

Rackmann explains how he kept a separate sheet for possible titles as he wrote his latest novel. By the time he finished his first draft, he had two possibilities. After the third draft, the sheet was “crammed with contenders.”

No, Dear. On your best day ever, it might have one, conceivably two “contenders” along with three dozen feeble stabs, fleeting epiphanies, and neurological spasms.

And good reasons marshaled in defense of a bad title don’t help. Rackman gives three “levels of meaning” for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, each one worse than the others, but the fact is,

Titles can’t be written, certainly not reasoned out. They happen.

The more reasons you can give for your title, the fewer its embers in your Kindle. The more explanations you have for its virtues, the more your publisher (if any) will insist on an alternative.

Rackman concedes that his publisher was uncomfortable with the repellent non-fiction titles he had chosen for his fictions. He’s also aware that some of his elders and betters have accepted title changes – that The Last Man in Europe became 1984; Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby; and Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird. But he’s not going to be bullied out of his reasons and his levels of meaning.

Think of some of your own favorite titles.

One of mine appeared on the cover of an oral history about Jews immigrating to Pittsburgh early in the 20th century. Volunteers set about interviewing the old timers while they were still around to interview; and one of the immigrants , a grandmother bursting with reawakened memories, exclaimed:

By Myself, I’m a Book!

You can’t write that title. It has to happen. And imagine Lynne Truss’s problem, trying to concoct a gripping title for a book on the importance of punctuation in the English language. She didn’t write it; her genius was to recognize what she had stumbled upon in a description of the panda. Then all she had to do was mispunctuate it:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I don’t lay claim to hall of fame titles for any of my books, but one of the better ones appears on a volume of light verse – and it’s not easy to find a name for a hundred or so poems in a bunch. Its title:

If instead of apes we had come from grapes, we wouldn’t just yet be wine.

That was simply the last two lines of a poem called “There’s the Bell,” which thus became the book’s title poem. Good or bad, for me it was a breakthrough – I never had a title poem before.

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.