I’m having trouble coming up with a title for my novel. It’s not a serious problem as the first draft is only half written and I’ve got plenty more time to think about it. Still, so far, that perfect word or phrase that encapsulates my story and will entice people to read it has eluded me.
So, the other day I decided to take a look at the bookshelves in my house to see what different kinds of titles I could find to inspire me.
The Protagonist’s Name
Jane Eyre: with a book that’s as much a part of the national psyche as this one, it’s virtually impossible to judge the title objectively. At face value, though, it’s pretty darn boring. Anna Karenina sounds more exotic, at least to anyone who isn’t Russian. Two names combined, as in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, at least sets up a dynamic. Offbeat names like Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre make you sit up and take notice, as does the peculiar laughter in Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha! All in all, these titles take on far more resonance, I feel, at the end of the book, once the reader has got to know the character in question.
From the minimalistic 26a, by Diana Evans, to the broader Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, titles that refer to setting conjure a sense of place without defining the story. As with the previous category, this kind of title might appear to be highly specific, but actually gives very little away.
Trespass by Rose Tremain, Disgrace by JM Coetzee, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Books with titles like these call for a certain literary weightiness to match the tone and sense of high concept.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. Like the remarkable book itself, though undoubtedly clever and artful, this is a tad too self-conscious for my liking. As for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Monica Lewycka, I was so put off by the title I never got around to reading the book at all.
One person’s wordy is another’s poetic. The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Unconsoled. Wow, Kazuo Ishiguro really excels at these. Soft, elliptical titles that echo the quiet subtlety of his prose. Although Never Let Me Go sounds like it could well come in a pastel pink jacket with flouncy, raised lettering.
A Boring Title That Disguises A Great Book
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This title is spare and bleak like the post-apocalyptic landscape of the novel. As such it works a treat, but I’m not sure whether, if someone asked me, ‘What’s your novel called?’ and I answered, ‘The Road,’ they’d be driven wild with desire to read it. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh could be another example, if you don’t get the drug reference (or even if you do!)
The Roths and the Amises promise insight into the state of contemporary humanity with their titles: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, Money, Lionel Asbo: State of England. A certain degree of hubris is required for a title like this and the requisite skill to justify it.
Having considered these various categories – and there are obviously many, many more – I was surprised how insignificant, uninspiring or underwhelming many titles happen to be, even when the book itself is quite exceptional. Unfortunately, this wasn’t all that helpful in finding a title of my own.
Then I came up with the idea of simply making a list of titles I really like.
Titles I Really Like
The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
The Bottle Factory Outing – Beryl Bainbridge
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Behind The Scenes At The Museum – Kate Atkinson
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – Mario Vargas Llosa
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Crooked Letter Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin
A Quiet Belief in Angels – RJ Ellory
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
I’ll Take You There – Joyce Carol Oates
The Accidental – Ali Smith
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
Some of these books I enjoyed reading more than others, but the titles all work for me. Why? It’s hard to say, except perhaps to note that few, if any, are easy to categorize. All evoke an image or an idea that is implicitly felt, rather than explicitly understood. Intriguing, without being wacky; lyrical, without being twee, they have a certain immediacy and trip nicely off the tongue.
So now I know what I’ve got to aim for in my title. Bleugh.
What book titles do you like and why? Come on. Seriously. I need all the help I can get.