Back in April, Megan DiLullo wrote a post called “I Was Gang Banged by the Lollypop Guild and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” I don’t know if we keep statistics on such things, or that we could if we wanted to, but I’d venture to guess that pretty much everybody who checked the site that day clicked that link. Because, you know, there was a chance that the piece was actually about her erotic misadventures in Lilliput. And who wouldn’t want to hear about that?
(The answer to that rhetorical question: everybody but Lenore).
In cyberspace in general, and The Nervous Breakdown in particular, long, audacious titles tend to yield more hits than single words no one uses, like, say, “Eponymous.” Some of Reno’s titles, for example, are almost as long as his posts, and he’s one of the most popular writers on here.
With so many books coming out every year—and so many other media that compete with novels for your entertainment dollar—a catchy title is absolutely essential, especially for an emerging author. So, you know, the heat is on to come up with a good one.
I did a survey of titles, mostly of novels, and found that most of them are what I’d term safe. They are riffs on one of a handful of accepted formats. To wit:
Hamlet, Macbeth, David Copperfield, Justine, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jane Eyre, Lolita
Peyton Place, Preston Falls, Empire Falls, Wuthering Heights, Great Jones Street, Casablanca, Prague, Chinatown
1984, “December, 1963,” Ash Wednesday, Saturday, Friday, Twelfth Night
Red, White & Blue
American Tabloid, American Psycho, American Beauty, American Pie, American Gigolo, American Graffiti, American Idiot
War & Peace, War & Rememberance, Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Sons & Lovers, Crime & Punishment, Angels & Demons
The Exorcist, The Alchemist, The Alienist, The Wrestler, The Idiot, The Moviegoer, The Kite Runner
Atonement, Affliction, Possession, Lust, Persuasion, Unforgiven, Despair
For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sound & The Fury, Tender is the Night, Pale Fire, Brave New World, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Paths of Glory
Saving Private Ryan, Being John Malkovich, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Romancing the Stone, Waiting for Godot
Euphemisms for Death
The Big Sleep, The Big Chill, The Sweet Hereafter
This is not to suggest that any of these titles are bad—some of them are excellent, I think—just that they are safe. They don’t take any chances.
Atonement is the perfect title for what is, in my estimation, the best English-language novel of the last quarter century—what else would it be called?—but it’s not a title you see and think, “Wow, that sounds good; I have to run and buy that.” But then, Ian McEwan can get away with that.
Prague is actually set in Budapest; the title derives from the fact that all the expats in Hungary would rather be in the Czech capital. A cool title, once you find that out—but unless you’re Darian Arky and you were just on the Charles Bridge this morning, does it really want to make you pick it up and read it?
A good title—a really good title, I mean—should 1) pique your interest—that’s a must; 2) have more than one meaning; 3) suggest the time, place, setting, and/or theme of the work; and 4) be realized in an unexpected and interesting way. It’s also helpful if it sounds really cool.
Here are some of my favorite titles of all time:
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- The Bell Jar
- Tropic of Cancer
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Crying of Lot 49
- The Maltese Falcon
- Landscape of the Body
- Bonfire of the Vanities
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being
- The Financial Lives of the Poets
What are yours? Do tell.