The Trouble With Titles, Part 1

“Your title could do more work.” Any writer who has been in a workshop has received some variation on this comment at one time or another. And every writer has stared at a finished piece and realized, with sudden a mind-stream of obscenities, that the story or poem still needs a title.

How do we choose the few words by which our books will be known? A title provides a kind of aura to a work, informing potential readers about its tone or possible subject matter, or perhaps simply piquing their interest. Though the cliché intones that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I’ll admit to doing just that. While wandering through a bookstore or library, I will grab an unfamiliar book from the shelf based on the appeal of its cover—though the appeal of a cover, for me, lies largely in its introducing a title into my head.

I remember specifically the day I selected the orange spine of Darin Strauss’s novel More Than It Hurts You. I loved the multiple valences of the title I could achieve by varying the emphasized word: Was it More Than It Hurts You, suggesting that some force or situation may hurt, but it hurts less than it…teaches? Helps? Challenges? Or perhaps, the stress should fall on the final word—More Than It Hurts You—implying that while one person is hurt by this action or circumstance, another person is aided more than the original person is harmed. Or perhaps, retaining the emphasis on the final word of the title, the phrase communicates a judgment over pain, i.e., it hurts me more than it hurts you.

Strauss’s novel is complex and lovely, but did not end up being one of my personal favorites; indeed, I did not actually remember its title but rather had to Google it just now. I did remember, however, the feeling of standing in Borders (RIP), looking at the title, and thinking, “This is a book I want to read.”

A title can do that—which is why, as writers, choosing a title can prove a torturous process. A title is the emissary your book sends out into the world! Choosing a title is somewhat like naming a child: the title merges with the identity of book, as a name does with a person. How strange to think you nearly gave Cassandra the name Rebecca! That Timothy was nearly Cody! And how odd to consider the various working titles of famous books that were eventually dispensed with in favor of the names we all know so well.

Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions, a name I actually quite like for the novel, but Austen changed it, perhaps because her similarly alliteratively named Sense and Sensibility proved so popular, selling out its edition.

Another original title that I rather love is Something that Happened, a gloriously vague and banal title that John Steinbeck eventually changed to Of Mice and Men. The simplicity and quiet despair of the novel emanate from the forsaken original moniker in a way that feels right to me, though of course the reference to Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” ultimately provides interesting context for the novel’s themes.

Mary Shelley’s early name for Frankenstein was Prometheus Unchained—a delightfully vibrant and violent title—while Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was adapted into a massively popular miniseries, had a much more provocative early title: Before This Anger.

As for authors who sidestepped terrible (or at least lesser) titles in favor of the names that became classic, we have Carson McCullers, who submitted the beginning of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to Houghton-Mifflin as The Mute, and Stephen Crane, whose The Red Badge of Courage originally possessed the mind-numbingly dull title Private Fleming, His Various Battles. In sadly humorous titles, Philip Roth called Portnoy’s Complaint in draft, among other things, The Jewboy and Whacking Off, while Tolstoy first released War and Peace under what seems to me a deeply cruel title: All’s Well that Ends Well.

Some authors seem almost preternaturally gifted at coming up with titles. Flannery O’Connor—to my mind perhaps the best American short story writer of the twentieth century—had many stories with simple titles (“The Barber,” “The Turkey,” “The Train”) but gave lengthily poetic titles to others, including “The Lame Shall Enter First,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” and my personal favorite match for story and title, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The titles for her two novels—Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away—are perhaps even better.

Among those still writing, I also adore the titles of Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills,Never Let Me Go), Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Orchard Keeper, Cities of the Plain, and the glorious full title of his apocalyptically fierce Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West), and Rebecca Solnit (The Faraway Nearby, A Paradise Built in Hell, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Infinite City).

For historical writers, it can be bizarre to think of classic works without the names we have come to know them by. F. Scott Fitzgerald is an interesting case, for while he chose beautiful titles for many of his works—I’m especially partial to “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” This Side of Paradise, Tender Is the Night, and The Beautiful and the Damned—the list of titles he considered for his most famous work before selecting The Great Gatsby is terribly heartening (brilliant writers come up with awful titles sometimes too!) or terribly disheartening (Trimalchio in West Egg? What the hell is that?!). Among the eventually discarded options were Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires (not great but not horrible), On the Road to West Egg (dull), Under the Red, White, and Blue (gross and much too obvious), Gold-Hatted Gatsby (meh), and The High-Bouncing Lover (thank the writing gods we were spared that monstrosity).

William Faulkner, perhaps my favorite novelist of all time, also had knack for glorious titles, often ones containing a religious allusion. Go Down, Moses takes its title from a spiritual analogizing the enslavement ofblacks in America with Jews in Egypt, while Absalom! Absalom! echoes King David’s lament at learning of his son’s death—the son that led a rebellion against him. Faulkner himself, though, had some difficulty with titles. He originally wanted to call The Wild Palms by the title, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, but his publishers, Random House, chose the name of one of the novel’s two interwoven stories.

After Noel Polk released his corrected texts of Faulkner’s novels, recent editions have been published under Faulkner’s preferred title, which quotes Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

Several of Faulkner’s other novels possess titles I find deeply beautiful, including As I Lay Dying, with its quotation from The Odyssey, Light in August, which was nearly given the starkly different but still lovely title Dark House, and The Unvanquished. Funnily enough, though, Faulkner’s most famous novel, itself in possession of a fiercely poetic title in The Sound and the Fury, was nearly known by a title we’ve become to associate in recent years with a very different kind of novel: Twilight.

What authors do you think are preternaturally gifted—or, conversely, deeply ungifted—at coming up with titles? Fellow writers, how do you choose titles for your own work?