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Book Titles of the Later Twentieth Century.

novel titles Jan 19, 2020
how to title a novel

In the first blog of the series, we saw the dominant form for the novel title prior to the Twentieth Century was the eponym - or the name of the main character of the story. In the last blog this series, we saw how the dominant form for the novel title in the Twentieth Century became the Reference; poetic or biblical. Perhaps they've given you inspiration for writing your own novel title as a statement of your literary purpose to guide writing our novel from the start?

Now we are going to look at the rise of other forms, one a cunningly disguised variant of the Reference, and the other the late Twentieth Century 'supermodel' of titles. 

Here's a recap on how the widely acclaimed best novels of the Twentieth Century are titled - in clusters.


The Subversive Reference.

Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men was published in 1946, and as we saw in the last blog, the title is derived from a low-brow source - Humpty Dumpty. 

First titled "Sebastian Dangerfield," J.P Donleavy's book of 1955 was retitled "The Ginger Man". There are scores of guesses and is much speculation about the title, would-be meanings ranging from slang for male genitalia to the most commonly believed theory: a connection to the childhood tale of The Gingerbread Man, whose song, "Run, run, as fast as you can; you can't catch me I'm the gingerbread man" does seem to fit Dangerfield's journey in the novel.

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey comes from a child's rhyme, which also serves as the epigraph. The epigraph reads "One flew east, one flew west, / One flew over the cuckoo's nest.

The low-brow or LO-FI reference is a rising trend in the Twentieth Century and will explain some of the titles you may have considered terribly creative.

The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler is a gangster euphemism for death; the final pages of the book refer to a rumination about "sleeping the big sleep”.

One of my favourite titles, The Postman Always Rings Twice is from a 1934 novel by James M. Cain. The title is a red herring in that no postman appears or is even alluded to. The meaning of the title has often been the subject of speculation. William Marling suggested that Cain may have taken the title from the sensational 1927 case of Ruth Snyder, who, like Cora in Postman, had conspired with her lover to murder her husband. Cain used the Snyder case as an inspiration for his 1943 novel Double Indemnity; Marling believed it was also a model for the plot and the title of Postman. In the real-life case, Snyder said she had prevented her husband from discovering the changes she had made to his life insurance policy by telling the postman to deliver the policy's payment notices only to her and instructing him to ring the doorbell twice as a signal indicating he had such a delivery for her. The historian Judith Flanders, however, has interpreted the title as a reference to postal customs in the Victorian era. When the post was delivered, the postman knocked once to let the household know it was there: no reply was needed. When there was a telegram, however, which had to be handed over personally, he knocked twice so that the household would know to answer the door. Telegrams were expensive and usually the bringers of bad news: so a postman knocking twice signalled trouble was on the way. In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice came from a discussion he had with the screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he felt when waiting for the postman to bring him news on a submitted manuscript, noting that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because he always rang twice. In his biography of Cain, Roy Hoopes recounted the conversation between Cain and Lawrence, noting that Lawrence did not say merely that the postman always rang twice but also that he was sometimes so anxious waiting for the postman that he would go into his backyard to avoid hearing his ring. The tactic inevitably failed, Lawrence continued, because if the postman's first ring was not noticed, his second one, even from the backyard, would be. As a result of the conversation, Cain decided upon that phrase as a title for his novel. Upon discussing it further, the two men agreed such a phrase was metaphorically suited to Frank's situation at the end of the novel. With the "postman" being God or fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again and this time the ring was heard; Frank is wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora and then sentenced to die.

Anthony Burgess explained thus the meaning and origin of the title for A Clockwork Orange (1962). He had overheard the phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" in a London pub in 1945 and assumed it was a Cockney expression. In Clockwork Marmalade, an essay published in The Listener in 1972, he said that he had heard the phrase several times since that occasion. He also explained the title in response to a question from William Everson on the television programme Camera Three in 1972, "Well, the title has a very different meaning but only to a particular generation of London Cockneys. It's a phrase which I heard many years ago and so fell in love with, I wanted to use it, the title of the book. But the phrase itself I did not make up. The phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" is good old East London slang and it didn't seem to me necessary to explain it. Now, obviously, I have to give it an extra meaning. I've implied an extra dimension. I've implied the junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the orange – and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I've brought them together in this kind of oxymoron, this sour-sweet word."  While addressing the reader in a letter before some editions of the book, the author says that when a man ceases to have free will, they are no longer a man. "Just a clockwork orange," a shiny, appealing object, but "just a toy to be wound-up by either God or the Devil, or (what is increasingly replacing both) the State.

The Supermodel Title: The Solo

Blindness was first used as a title by Henry Green for his first novel in 1926. Subsequently, he used the solo words to indicate a state of being in the world, reflecting the existential theories of the times and a solipsistic sense of man against machine perhaps. 

Living (1929) Party,  Caught (1943) Loving (1945) Back (1946) Concluding (1948) Nothing (1950) Doting (1952).

(The existentialists Sarte and Camus used single notion titles - Nausea, The Stranger, The Fall, The Plague.)

Doffing their hats to these perhaps, later more popular writers drew upon pre-Second World War philosophers when they used single (grand) concept titles.

In a way, one might see this a new version of leaning on literary references.

  • Deliverance (1970) James Dickey 
  • Bliss (1981) Amnesia (2014) Peter Carey 
  • Beloved (1987) Toni Morrison 
  • Possession (1990) AS Byatt 
  • Immortality (1990), Slowness (1995), Identity (1998), Ignorance (2000)- Milan Kundera
  • Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) Philip Roth
  • Damage (1991), Sin (1992), Oblivion (1995) Josephine Hart
  • Disgrace (1999) JM Coetzee.
  • Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan

I dub this novel title form the Supermodel Solo as it's the author's grandstanding, it denotes the intention to give us a big work of philosophical importance and exactitude. It stands head and shoulders above other titles on the bookshop runway!

As the fortunes of literary fiction diminished in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, so this form all but disappeared in favour of a more commercial form, implying a character-driven story given more page-turning appeal by the addition of an appealing or intriguing setting or the urgency of a problem of a tight spot - as we will see in the next blog. But here already are its origins: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Portnoy's Complaint, A House for Mr Biswas, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

I hope this is giving you plenty of thought for your own title but more importantly, that it's giving you the chance to consider your intentions for writing your novel.

The sooner you nail it, confess it, own it and write towards it the smoother your progress will be.


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