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Book Titles. How They Work.

book titles Jan 05, 2020
how to find a book title


Welcome to Titology, or the study of titles.

In this short series of blogs on the origins of novel titles, I will perform a rude taxonomy to classify the species. For my roll call I'm using a combination of the bestselling, best-regarded 'Top 100 Novels' lists from the UK and the USA.

A title is a statement of literary intention.

As a form in itself it has become increasingly nuanced over time, but it's still possible to decipher the motives and meanings behind titles, and quite fascinating. Once armed you can title your book with confidence and sharpen your creative intentions. When we know what we're doing, as authors, we tend to do it rather well. When we don't we tend to do it rather badly. Post-rationalising your intentions in multiple drafts of a novel is a bore, as I described in the last blog.

Now, the modern novel is considered to have started in 1605 with The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes better known as Don Quixote. 

"If there is one novel you should read before you die, it is Don Quixote," Ben Okri said at the Nobel Institute as he announced the results of their 2002 authors' poll of best novels of all-time "Don Quixote has the most wonderful and elaborated story, yet it is simple." Don Quixote came top of the list among voters including  Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Seamus Heaney, Carlos Fuentes and Norman Mailer.

"In the whole world there is no deeper, no mightier literary work. This is, so far, the last and greatest expression of human thought; this is the bitterest irony which man was capable of conceiving. And if the world were to come to an end, and people were asked there somewhere: "Did you understand your life on earth, and what conclusions have you drawn from it?" man could silently hand over Don Quixote." Dostoyevsky.

Thus the long-form story of the novel began with the name of its main character. As many of my writers on our novel-writing course know, a novel is essentially a moral journey.

The Eponyms. The use of the main character's name as the preference for the titling of a novel continued throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries through Barry Lyndon, Gulliver's Travels, Candide, The History of Tom Jones, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Moll Flanders, Fanny Hill, Amelia, Camilla, Cecilia, Clarissa, Justine, Pamela, to Robinson Crusoe. During this period, the name was chosen to be realistic.

It was still the preferred mode for titling a book in the Nineteenth Century until we get to Dickens where the names infer character and are sometimes chosen for alliterative play - from Oliver Twist to Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens took the same approach to place names with invented locales to infer his theme as with Bleak House.

We begin to see the increasing humour and whimsy of description of the main character as an addition to the name - harking back to the sometimes omitted The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote - which give notice to the reader of the narrative style they might expect inside with additional descriptors of 'adventures' or 'history' 'portrait' or 'mystery.' We can see the 'mood' in the contrivance beginning perhaps with Wuthering Heights.

The use of a name infers that this particular person is somehow distinct or worthy of note. This is particularly pertinent pre-Twenty-first century where the name is female. This, says the author, is a woman unlike others; Anna Karenina, Mary Barton, Emma and so on. She is of note, unlike others.

In modern times, being a woman worthy of a novel does not require such distinction and eponymously titled female novels (without descriptors) tend to be quieter and less of an adventure or pageant wrought on a smaller canvas. 

The addition of the descriptor - like the Ingenious Nobleman - was taken up again in the Twentieth Century, when after a proliferation of eponymously titled novels a person worthy of a novel did not make that person distinctive per se perhaps but with the rise of consumerism the additional descriptor supplied commercial 'audience' intent - well, look at this chap! (The Great Gatsby.) 

The recent taste for the novel titles of the popular Up Lit genre (A Man Called Ove, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) returns to the convention that the story is the main character's moral journey.

We will come onto the twentieth century in the next blog, but for now, note how contrary to expectations, the other novel titles were not referential (poems, Biblical quotes) but worlds in themselves. They are statements on the business of moral improvement or the conditions of the world, and faithful to the author's intentions and to the readers' predilections or interests. The Victorian ambition is bold.

We are able to get a glimpse of the author's intention by looking at these title clusters. The reader would have had a clear steer too. (By the way, I start work with my writers by asking them to declare their intentions so that we have a stable base for the instable business of writing. We fix our destination from the off.)

Working on a larger social canvas, some writers deploy a witty 'connective' between two apparently opposing forces to show the range they intend to cover. From Stendhal's The Red and the Black, through to Tolstoy's War and Peace, Gaskell's North and South,  Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and onwards to  DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers later. (In contrast, a title like Tony Parson's  'Man and Boy' (2001) does not offer such a broad scale juxtaposition thus its worldly range is more narrow; a smaller book, a product of individualist times.)

Thomas Hardy was quite an innovator and the title of his first published novel is quite striking for the times - Desperate Remedies (1871). Its intention seems to fit within the 'morality' cluster above. His second novel Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) is location-driven. Thomas Hardy's third novel (1874) Far From the Madding Crowd is an exception to the rule; it references a poem. It comes from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife. 
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

As we enter the Twentieth Century we will see the increasing use of literary and Biblical references for titles as a way of 'badging' the work as worthy. Think of it as borrowed reputation. You might consider it evidence of a slight insecurity on the part of the author and a desire to belong, something akin to the way the urban dweller moving to the countryside gets a Barbour and a Range Rover.

Hardy abandoned a first novel, and hoped for commercial success with the first two published, but didn't find it. He felt himself an outsider in London literary circles, was acutely conscious of class divisions with a sense of social inferiority as the son of a stonemason. (His formal education ended at sixteen and he was apprenticed to an architect, writing in his spare time.)

He met Emma Gifford in 1870 and they planned to marry, and eventually did so in 1874, the year that Far From the Madding Crowd was published. It was successful enough for Hardy to give up architectural work and pursue a literary career and the couple left London for Yeovil. Over the next twenty-five years, Hardy produced ten more novels. One might say that the titling of that book, borrowing from a poem considered a masterpiece, was intended to give Hardy his right to belong and conferred upon him the freedom to belong on his own terms. We will see this stratagem again later in the works of Hemingway and others.

Using a literary reference as a title gives the author leeway to develop the plot broadly, and to use a large canvas. It conceals a multitude of plot changes!

In1872 Hardy was flattered to receive a letter from Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, inviting him to contribute a serial. Engaged to Emma, realising that this was an important opportunity, he proposed a pastoral story to be called Far from the Madding Crowd, in which ‘the chief characters would probably be a young woman-farmer, a shepherd, and a sergeant of cavalry’. The title nailed his colours to the mast (this is literary) and left him free to pursue the tale wherever it went. As he wrote, Hardy’s original, simple outline developed into a carefully interwoven tale in which the lives of the principal characters are played out against the backdrop of a close-knit community and the wider natural world. Hardy made many alterations in his manuscript as he went along - to the plot, to the language and imagery, and especially to his characters.

It was a wise and well-considered choice.

At the other end of the spectrum, a title can be less well-considered. 1890 saw the publication of The Doll by Boleslaw Prus regarded by Czeslaw Milosz as the greatest Polish novel. The title will sound quite modern to your ears. It was also quite wrong for the book.

The Doll comprises two parallel narratives. One opens with events of 1878 and recounts the career of the Stanisław Wokulski, a man in early middle age. The other narrative, in the guise of a diary kept by Wokulski's older friend Ignacy Rzecki, takes the reader back to the 1848-49 "Spring of Nations."

Prus paid great attention to the location details for Warsaw, and it has been said he did for that city what Joyce did for Dublin in Ulysses. In an extensive letter to the editor published in 1897 in Kurier Warszawski, Prus defined his intention as the desire ‘to present our Polish idealists against the background of society’s decay’. The truth, he admitted, was that he had chosen his title more or less ‘accidentally’. It was supposed to highlight one of the novel’s episodes, in which the alleged theft of a real doll leads to a curious court trial. The subplot around that event was modelled on a newspaper story, which was for Prus the moment of ‘crystallisation’ of his general thematic design. The less ‘accidental’ title that he came up with later was Trzy Pokolenia, Three Generations. Such a title would have helped Prus’s contemporary reviewers avoid many misreadings and misunderstandings. In particular, the identification of ‘the doll’ with Izabela results in a flattened, one-dimensional image of the novel. The novel is, among other things, a novel about a middle-aged man’s ill-fated love for a pampered and affected young woman, but Wokulski’s infatuation is just part of his psychological profile and is not the force animating the plot which is a broad canvas depiction of Polish society at the time drawn lovingly in careful historically recorded detail.

Do you see how had Prus titled it with a broader range it might have packed the punch of War and Peace, since its contents would have stood up to such a title? To match its given title - The Doll - we might have expected the narrative and prose to be precious, more exacting, more tragic as in perhaps Hans Fallada's The Drinker. It was a mistake. Prus would have secured his place in the canon by titling it Izabela Łęcka which would have been 'real' and in the writing given him the range of changes and additions to theme as Anna Karenina did to Tolstoy as we saw in our blog on Tolstoy's writing of Anna Karenina.

Consider your intentions for your novel and before you put pen to paper, start with scoping out the title. But don't make a final decision just yet, there's more to come.

In the next blog, you'll meet the late 20th Century supermodel of title forms.

Until then happy writing, and do explore our many routes to writing your novel on offer at The Novelry from just £149 a month for three months, and the Book in a Year Program which bundles our famous courses offering you a saving of twenty percent.

We're very serious about getting you published. You can expect constructive, meticulous support from your title to 'The End', from typing the first words to the book store. Join us and get your novel done in 2020.

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