Many books succeed without a really great title.
Not much that jumps out there.
Compared with Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Make-Up or Kenji Ekuan’s Tha Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox they don’t really grab. But perhaps I’m being unfair, as both these examples are non-fiction and give more scope for eccentricity.
So what about good fiction titles?
Some novels scream for attention; when you call your book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius you invite people to contradict you. But then Dave Egger’s book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize so he at least walked the walk.
Louise Plummer’s YA novel My Name is Sus5an Smith. The 5 is silent’ is a real attention grabber but, unlike Eggers, she never garnered the stellar reviews to back such a whimsical title.
Kinky Friedman’s The Love Song of J Edgar Hoover parodies T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But then Friedman is a special case. He once fronted a band called the Texas Jewboys and penned songs like Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed and They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore. He is one of America’s least conventional detective writers so don’t look surprised.
Comic novelist Christoper Moore dreamed up the brilliant “Island of the Sequined Love Nun”
And fantasy humorist Robert Rankin got great reviews for the brilliantly titled “The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.” How could you not pick it up and at least glance at the back cover?
One of my favoure titles is from Douglas Adams, documenting the adventures of holistic detective Dirk Gently in ‘The long Dark Teatime of the Soul’. Only Adams.
Some titles are so well known to us that we have perhaps forgotten how inspired they were.
Like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – which brilliantly captures the book’s theme but remains mysterious until Atticus explains the analogy later in the book – and Ray Bradbury’s SF thriller Something Wicked This Way Comes.. Imagine if he called it Something Evil Is Coming or WTF? Doesn’t work nearly as well.
Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sold itself on title alone. The fact that the book itself has become a modern classic owes much to that title. I can’t imagine ‘You Are Your Kawasaki 250′ would have done nearly as well.
I also love Bring Me The Head of Willy the Mailboy.
But I’m cheating here, because it’s not really a novel – it’s a collection of cartoons of the highly successful 90’s cartoon ‘Dilbert’ by Scott Adams. The title is taken from the 74 Peckinpah thriller Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
But now to the classics: The Catcher in the Rye was a great title. What did it mean? By the time I might possibly have found out I had fallen asleep. I am one of those people that really didn’t mind that JD Salinger became a recluse and stopped writing. Still, I’m sure other people loved it.
How clever is Far From the Madding Crowd? Hardy’s title is taken from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, ‘madding’ meaning ‘frenzied’. I never knew that. Had to look it up. But it works.
And Julie Christie was great in the movie.
The title of Hemingway’s Spanish War masterpiece For Whom The Bell Tolls is drawn from John Donne: “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe … therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.“
On a less exalted level I still think The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories is an absolute winner but I’m a guy so I would, wouldn’t I? Great cover, too. We’ve talked about it before.
But for me the KING of the great title is Charles Bukowski.
His novels (Post Office and Ham on Rye) were not particularly compelling, but he allowed himself full rein in his poetry anthologies:
Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 story Window
Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame,
Love Is a Dog from Hell,
Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit,
Horses Don’t Bet on People and Neither Do I
What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire
Slouching Towards Nirvana.
They are are all poems on their own.
My own best – or most inventive title at least – remains The Year We Seized the Day, a travel story I wrote with Elizabeth Best about our journey on the Spanish camino (the pilgrimage route made famous in the movie The Way last year.) It got fantastic reviews but our publicist quit the week before it was released and then the editor left and so the publisher virtually ignored it.
It hurt because it was a book written through literal blood and pain for both of us. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT IT HERE
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Julia Robb asked me to feature on her blog at Venture Galleries this month. I talk about running with the bulls at Pamplona, the research for SILK ROAD, why American publishers hate me, and my upcoming book. You can read the interview here.