A book should wear its talent on its (jacket) sleeve

We are at what seems to be a low point in the history of book titles. Good titles are hard to find, but they make all the difference. Take Timothy Caulfield’s new book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? On the strength of the jacket blurb, I would not be overly interested in reading it. But that title makes me want to grab it with both hands. I can’t say that about many books these days.

There are those that try too hard; Dave Eggers’s wilfully obscure What Is the What, for example, or Joshua Ferris’s bleedingly postmodern Then We Came to the End. (I know it’s the opening line from Don DeLillo’s Americana, but still). Others are overly long and overly self-conscious, for which Kiran Desai has, for the past 15 years, held the title with her novel Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.

Some are achingly figurative. There is altogether too much water in literary fiction titles, that and the use of other elements to suggest a timeless, mystical quality to the manuscript – see the Booker long-listed History of the Rain or The Memory of Water or Water for Elephants or The Shadow of the Wind or The Light between Oceans or Cutting for Stone – all of which, as titles, strike me as essentially meaningless. (Although I do like Jonathan Coe’s The Rain before It Falls. Coe is good at titles – see also his 1994 romp, What a Carve Up!).

The brilliance of a book can sometimes be signalled by the dullness of its title, the author’s confidence in his or her material advertised by their unwillingness to seduce the reader in advance. Fathers and Sons is a great book, which may have seemed less so had Ivan Turgenev panicked and called it The Nihilist’s Dilemma or The Revolutionary Botany Club of St Petersburg.

Likewise, Anthony Trollope’s bald utilitarianism suggests a certain bracing confidence in the story to follow, one accompanied by a slight smirk.

An anomaly in literary fiction
He Knew He Was Right, the English writer’s novel of 1869, finds its echo in titles such as Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a title that for some reason makes me laugh out loud.

The Fowler book is an anomaly in literary fiction, in which whimsy abounds and books such as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See – a Pulitzer winner, no less – wears its soggy sensitivity on its sleeve, or rather, its jacket cover.

And at the other end of the scale, there are Jonathan Franzen’s mighty abstract nouns: on the heels of his 2010 novel, Freedom, the forthcoming title, Purity, which on its publication later this year raises the hope that he will one day publish a novel called Flux (a title under which all novels could essentially be published) and be done with it.

These trends also depend largely on what country you’re in. Stick the word “American” at the front of any noun and you have an instant state-of-the-nation hit in the United States, irrespective of genre or medium. Consider, over the past 10 years or so, the success of American Sniper, American Pastoral, American Beauty and American Psycho. (I am trying to persuade my nanny to write a book about her 27 years of looking after other people’s children and call it American Baby Nurse.)

It’s when you try these titles out with “British” at the front that you discover something about the relative self-image of the two countries. (Seriously, British Sniper sounds like a vehicle for Rowan Atkinson).


The Gwyneth Paltrow title works because it is bitchy and fun and gets to the point, as the best titles do, and because it avoids the worst of the publishing industry’s most recent clichés.

Think about it: if Turgenev was writing today, he would doubtless be under pressure from his publisher to win more women readers by calling his novel The Landowner’s Nephew. – © Guardian News & Media, 2015

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday