I’ve spent the last two hours trying to think of a name for this blog. A label. Names, titles, slogans, headlines and labels–some people have a genius for them. Some don’t. I, alas, am in the don’t pile. For this blog–column–whatever it is, I thought of: Notes and Natterings. Mind Over Mutter. The Accidental Observer. And several others that made my advisors recoil in horror and dismay. So: Reality Reconsidered. I’ll go with it for a while. I remember once, a bunch of us editors at Harcourt Brace were asked to come up with a title for the new edition of our reading program. The previous edition had been called the Phoenix edition, if I’m remembering correctly. So there we sat in rows of chairs, about fifty of us, brainstorming for hours. The Falcon Edition? The Eagle Edition? The Panther Edition? The Galaxy Edition? No one liked the titles I came up with–the Albatross Edition. Well, it carried on the bird theme, didn’t it? The Dinosaur Edition.
Next to me on the desk here is a brilliant newspaper headline. It goes with a story about the new alternative-fuel stations springing up along the west coast.
Where the Gas Is Always Greener
How do people who come up with stuff like that come up with stuff like that?
Great authors often write great titles–well duh. Take: The Beautiful and the Damned–it doesn’t get much better than that. Fitzgerald had some other gems too. Tender Is the Night–to die for, in my opinion. Then again, maybe great books turn their own titles into iconically great ones just by being such great books themselves. On the face of it, The Great Gatsby is ho hum, but somehow it’s stamped indelibly into our cultural imagination. I hear the phrase, I see a certain kind of guy, his white suit, the lawns in the background, the whole milieu. Same sort of thing with Peter Pan. Before there was the book/play/movies, was “Peter” already the perfect name for that little boy? What if J.M. Barrie had called him “Henry Pan”? Would “Henry” now feel like the very embodiment of magical, cocky, little-boy, naughtiness?
Some titles are great because of their audacity. You can’t top A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Then again, maybe you can. There’s a subtler, more elusive audacity about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It issues such a peremptory call, and for such an odd act. Immediately you wonder: who’s “us”? Who’s telling us we should do this? And why should we praise famous men? What men, for that matter? And why now, particularly? At first blush that title seems perfectly direct, rather plain even, and yet every word in it turns out to raise a question.
I see that same elusive quality in some of Hemingway’s titles. The Sun Also Rises, for example. It’s the “also” that does it. What is that about? Is it saying something else rises, and so does the sun? Or is it saying the sun does something besides rise? (It does of course. Maybe one of us should write that book: “The Sun Also Sets.” Hemingway has a couple of other great ones: For Whom the Bell Tolls. And especially–especially: The Old Man and the Sea. Epic simplicity and mystic grandeur, yet so unassuming.
And now that I’ve started–As I Lay Dying. Light in August. The Sound and the Fury. I envy the guy who could come up with titles like those.
After I first posted these musings, I heard from my old high school buddy Joe Stillman, who said that he learned the value of a good, catchy title when he was at Columbia in the ’60s. He had decided to write a paper comparing Thomas Jefferson and Che Guevara but after researching Guevara and Jefferson thoroughly, he concluded there were no grounds for a comparison whatever. But it was too late to switch gears, he had to write the paper. “I had nothing to say. However, I did have a great title: Jefferson and Guevara: The Man in the Revolution and the Revolution in the Man. My professor wrote that while the paper itself warranted an F, the title was great and he gave me a B+.”
My own titles aren’t bad, I think, but they didn’t come easily. Or, for the most part, from me. West of Kabul, East of New York was a last late suggestion that I tossed out because my agent didn’t want to try to sell my original title, Straddling the Faultline. She said “Come on, come on, one more.” I happened to have a book of fairy tales in front of me, open to one from Scandinavia that was called, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. And that, with modifications, turned into the title of my book. The Widow’s Husband started out as The Malang of Char Bagh, but one of my writer friends pointed out that the only two English words in that title are “the” and “of.” As for Destiny Disrupted, I love that title, wish I’d thought of it. At book signings and such, people ask how I came up with it, and here’s the answer. I shot about a thousand ho-hum ideas at my editor Lisa Kaufman, and then she came up with a thousand and first idea better than all of mine.
Having said all that, I’m realizing: maybe Faulkner and Fitzgerald didn’t come up with those great titles. Editors are the great unsung creative heroes of publishing. I’m picturing a couple of them now, shaking their heads as they stare at the titles their authors have turned in. The Good-Looking and the Goddamned. As I Lay There Feeling Kind of Sick. Old Codger Catches a Big Fish. Big Hand Here for Celebrities -– Big Hand. Thank You. Thank You Very Much.