Judging a book by its title

F Scott Fitzgerald and company produce great literature, but titles are often best left to publishers. Pride of place in the study of “titlography” that I have just begun must go to Fitzgerald.

This Side of Paradise started life as The Education of a Personage. The Beautiful and the Damned was at one stage due to be called The Flight of the Rocket.

But the biggest struggle of all was over the book we know as The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wanted to call it Trimalchio or later Trimalchio in West Egg.

There’s a reference in the story to Gatsby beginning to forfeit his role as a modern Trimalchio, but that isn’t much help to those who have never heard of Trimalchio.

I assumed he must be some walk-on part in a lesser-known play by Shakespeare, who more than any other has been pillaged for titles. In fact he’s a character in the Satyricon (by Petronius) who, Gatsby-like, constantly entertains on a vulgarly lavish scale.

The publishers, Scribner’s, insisted on Gatsby. On the eve of publication Fitzgerald demanded that Trimalchio be reinstated. But too late. The book had already been advertised with the title that it now bears.

There used to be the option for people unsure of their titles to offer an either-or: Twelfth Night, or What You Will (Shakespeare); She Stoops to Conquer, or The Mistakes of a Night (Goldsmith); St Patrick’s Day, or The Scheming Lieutenant (Sheridan: the second title superseded the first).

That practice is rarer now, as is the one that even earlier writers used to enjoy — providing titles that threatened at times to become almost as long as the book itself.

And though copyright disputes are rare in these matters, they’re not unknown. David Lodge, who recently published a novel with the not entirely grabby title Deaf Sentence, wanted to call one of his earlier books The British Museum Has Lost Its Charm — a line from the George and Ira Gershwin song, A Foggy Day in London Town.

The custodians of the Gershwin legacy forbade him to do so and he had to make do with The British Museum is Falling Down.

Later he produced another book the title of which came from the Gershwins — Nice Work (from the lines “Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try”). This time there was no prohibition. —

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