“… that which we call the rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare reminds us. And it’s true of most things in the world, but not in the world of books; especially fiction. Here’s my take on things.
Ernest Hemingway believed a title should have magic. I’ll buy that. A dull title can kill an otherwise good book. An inspiring one can help make it a best seller. In my view, a title should at least hint at the genre and tone of the work. It should be intriguing. It should also be unique; a writer should always check his title against existing works. Type your title into a search engine or Amazon.com and you’ll get to know if your title is original or someone has beaten you to it. I’ve often found several books carrying the same title, so beware.
It may be a single word such as: Poison, Vengeance, or two: Poison Harvest, or a complete sentence: Vengeance Wears Black. It should not be too long as it does seem that short titles work best.
In 1924, a young writer sent off the manuscript of a novel to the publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons entitled Trimalchio in West Egg. The editor abhorred the title and suggested the author make a change. The writer came back with several other titles, all getting the thumbs down. They finally settled on The Great Gatsby. A good move don’t you think?
Though not a book of fiction, as a young anthropology student I was introduced to Bronislaw Malinowski’s great work: Argonauts of the Western Pacific; a terrific title that. But it could easily have been called: An Ethnography of the People of the Trobriand Islands in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea because that was what it was. Which is the better title?
It’s said that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And the word coming in from agents and editors is that a book’s title is the best impression of your work and of you as an author. It’s a manuscript’s title that first captures the publishing house editor’s interest. More than a book’s cover, it’s the title on the spine that impels the bookstore browser to reach out for a book and take it down. And then, if he or she likes the cover and the publisher’s blurb, perhaps buy.
Book titles have always fascinated me. For awhile, I wondered how great writers came up with their inspiring titles. Hemingway, for example, who gave us:
For Whom The Bell Tolls
A Farewell To Arms
The Sun Also Rises
And what vision inspired John Steinbeck to create:
East of Eden
The Grapes of Wrath
In Dubious Battle
Then I discovered the mundane truth. They purloined them. They swiped, high-jacked or borrowed them. Take a look.
For Whom The Bell Tolls. Meditation XVII, John Donne
A Farewell To Arms. A Farewell to Arms, George Peele
The Sun Also Rises. Ecclesiastes 1:5
East of Eden. Genesis 4:16
The Grapes of Wrath. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe
In Dubious Battle. Paradise Lost, John Milton
F. Scott Fitzgerald took Tender is the Night from John Keats poem Ode to a Nightingale. Thackeray got Vanity Fair from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. James Jones’ first novel: From Here to Eternity was a bestseller, received critical acclaim and won him a National Book Award. Based on his Second World War experiences, it and was made into a successful film starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Frank Sinatra made a hit record of the theme song. It made Jones rich and set him on the path of literary success. But it was Rudyard Kipling who supplied the title:
Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we.
The list of writers who outsourced in this manner is endless and includes Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner and so many more.
So fear not. If you’re stuck for a title, just remember that the works of Shakespeare, dead writers and poets and the St. James Bible have proved a mine field for the writer seeking a good title. Writers have even been known to take a well-known phrase or verse and move the words around. David Halberstam did this with his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Best and the Brightest, the title of which he borrowed from Heber’s hymn.
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
So, if finding a title for your novel is proving difficult go ahead and check out the Bard, ransack the Bible and dig into some old literature and poetical works. You’re in great company.
Would I do it? Would I steal a line from a Shakespeare Sonnet or a poem of Byron’s? Would I lift a quote from Ecclesiastes or Genesis for a book title? You betcha. And with no qualms at all. In fact I already have. The novel I’m presently working on was called: “The Company of Men”. I’ve changed that to: “The Sum of Things.” It comes from a poem of A E. Houseman:
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
the sum of things
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries