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The Trouble With Titles, Part 2

I finished my recent post about titles by asking, “Fellow writers, how do you choose titles for your own work?” For, at the end of the day, it’s lovely to appreciate Rebecca Solnit’s poetic ease with titles, but my manuscript still has a dash at the top, meaning, “Title to come, don’t even bother asking now.”

Considering that my frequent method for titling poems and stories is to choose the title I think will do the least harm, and that before I could title my MFA thesis (a manuscript of my poems) I lay awake panicking for nights on end, I, at least, could benefit from understanding the options when it comes to titles. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of approaches to consider when it comes to titling your next book, story, or poem.

The Folio Society has a stunning edition of As I Lay Dying with cover art and illustrations by Katherine Hardy.

1. Quote from an another work

Extract your title from an existing work of literature. Many of the writers I mentioned as title geniuses, by my particular estimation, use this tactic. William Faulkner took several of the titles for his novel from the Bible, while As I Lay Dying quotes from The Odyssey. During his speech to Odysseus in Book IX, Agamemnon asserts, “As I lay dying the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes for me as I descended into Hades.” Although this quotation does not appear as an epigraph or, indeed, appear in full in the novel at all, it casts an eerie but illuminating light on a novel that tracks the Bundren family’s journey into a series of psychological and physical hells.

Two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s titles that I highlighted as poetic standouts actually borrow from poems. Tender Is the Night quotes John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and This Side of Paradise excerpts from the ending of Rupert Brooke’s “Tiare Tahiti.” The latter poem begins by rhapsodizing about heaven, before questioning the appeal of its perfection when eternity requires giving up “All time-entangled human love.” He urges his lover to glory in their current, material existence while the opportunity lasts: “Well this side of Paradise! ….There’s little comfort in the wise.”

Cormac McCarthy has also lifted titles from poetry. No Country for Old Men takes its excellent title from William Butler Yeats’s famous poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” which considers material existence from the perspective of one soon leaving it. The world’s relevance seems to be receding, while his heart is “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is.”  

Shakespeare’s works are perhaps the most referenced, after the Bible, in other books’ titles. David Foster Wallace’s brick-like opus Infinite Jest quotes Hamlet for its title, while the John Green novel The Fault in Our Stars, which Ryan raved about in a recent post, adapts its title from Julius Caesar, specifically from a famous passage in Act 1 that features Cassius goading Brutus into anger against Caesar. While Cassius works to convince his friend that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings,” asserting that “Men at some time are masters of their fates,” Green’s novel explores the lives of characters who are masters of little but the transient present with its opportunity to love well. 

Selecting a quote from an existing work to use as a title is its own kind of skill, however. What if the source for a potential title exists in translation, as in the case of popularly referenced texts like the Bible and Homer’s epics?

Flannery O’Connor, she of the dark wit and often terrifying religious overtones, gleaned the title for her novel The Violent Bear It Away from Matthew 11:12. The King James Version of that verse, however, reads, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” The Violent Take It By Force is a considerably less poetic and less compelling title than the one O’Connor found in the Douay–Rheims Bible, a 16th century edition translated from the Latin vulgate into English by scholars in a Catholic seminary in Douay, France. O’Connor likely read the 1899 American edition of this translation—and thank God she did. Though, if she hadn’t found this beautifully threatening title, she might have kept an earlier one: the first chapter of The Violent Bear It Away was originally published as a short story, which had its own great (albeit tonally very different) title, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead.”

Cover art by Alvin Lustig from the first American edition (New Directions, 1949)2. Quote or symbol from your own work

Poets more use this tactic perhaps the most frequently—maybe because we have to title every damn poem before we even get to the trouble of titling a whole book. Philip Larkin, for instance, references the final, transcendent image of “High Windows” to lend the poem its title, and that poem eventually lent its title to the collection that included it. Prose writers, though, also sometimes highlight a symbol or phrase important to the narrative and use it as the title. Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky immediately leaps to mind, as does Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills and Jeannette Walls’s Glass Castle.

I love Bowles’s title because it seems, before reading the novel, a gesture to benevolent protection, but it gains much more sinister significance as the novel progresses, until the image of the sheltering sky is, more than anything, a threat. The best titles work that way: they mean something different on page 1 than they do on page 150, and on page 320, and once you’ve closed the book.

Of course, attempting to write a title that prismatic can seem a nearly impossible task. Even Pulitzer Prize winners make mistakes in this department, for while A Visit from the Goon Squad usefully emphasizes the ephemerality of life by referencing a character’s description of time as a goon squad coming for you, the title seems, to me, tonally off for Jennifer Egan’s book. Can you think of books that highlight their own symbols in the title, either well or poorly, to your mind?

Exquisite cover art by Stephen Doyle for Vintage, part of a series of covers for Nabokov’s works that were created within insect boxes, all of which are gorgeous and unusual

3. Adjective + noun

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Nicole Krauss’s Great House—plenty of accomplished novels feature two-word titles that consist merely of an adjective followed by a noun. This titling tactic seems, to me, to emphasize the words’ sonic qualities. Wise Blood, and Great House, of the books named above, are spondees (two stressed syllables in a row), while Pale Fire includes two accented syllables followed by an unaccented syllable. Such metrical stress gives these titles real force, for me, which an introductory article (an unaccented “the,” “a,” or “an”) eliminates.

Another particular favorite “adjective + noun” combination includes poet Kazim Ali’s title for his stunning book of autobiographical lyrical essays, Bright Felon. This title also falls under category 1, though, since it quotes a Gillian Conoley poem, an exerpt from which also serves as the epigraph. Again, note the single-syllable adjective, the dynamic double stress that begins the title: BrightFelon. I love the way such titles confront the hearer.

4. Character’s name Cover art by Rodrigo Corral

The eponymous protagonist narrates Jane Eyre, and Pamela is written in that woman’s voice. Of course, not all novels named after characters feature those characters as narrators. Harper Lee originally planned to call To Kill a Mockingbird simply Atticus, which would have had the novel, like The Great Gatsby, be named for one character while narrated in first person by a different character. Another entry for this list would be, of course, Lolita.

If you’re looking to spice things up a bit, throw in an adjective (example: Jude the Obscure) or make the name possessive, and add a noun as well as an adjective if you feel so inclined (example: Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao).

5. A single word

Perhaps a character’s name as title seems too on-the-nose for your taste. Another minimalist option involves titles consisting of a single word (or an article plus a single word, if you want to push it).

Toni Morrison, one of my favorite novelists of all time and a gloriously poetic writer, has grown dully minimalist lately when it comes to titles. Beloved and Sula were each named for characters—though it might be more accurate to call Beloved a force rather than a character—but subsequent one-word titles have, in my mind, tended toward abstractions that, as such, remain rather vacant of meaning. There’s a bold simplicity in naming a novel Jazz, so I’ll stand behind that one, but Paradise began the string of boring titles that also include Love, A Mercy, and Home.

A more successful one-word title, to my mind, is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. That abstraction provides such an interesting lens onto the characters’ actions. Likewise, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, while ostensibly referencing to the outbreak of sightlessness the novel chronicles, also asks readers to consider the myriad ways beyond the literal the people are blind.Of course, that I find Love less compelling an interpretive lens than these is simply personal bias, but there we are.

And I am willing to assert that perhaps no simple title functions as masterfully as Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

6. A single letter

Tom McCarthy chose C and Thomas Pynchon claimed V, while John Updike took S. Hurry, before the other letters are gone!