November 6, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On Titles

It’s always amusing to read about the original titles of famous novels. A few years ago an infographic from Jonkers Rare Books made the rounds on the Internet and revealed such gems as Nobody’s Fault (Little Dorrit), The Saddest Story (The Good Soldier), and, my personal favorite, Something That Happened (Of Mice and Men). F. Scott Fitzgerald, meanwhile, made the list only once (Trimalchio in West Egg), but supposedly he had a whole range of possible titles for The Great Gatsby, from the delightfully amusing (The High-Bouncing Lover) to the absurdly on-the-nose (Under the Red, White and Blue).

In all these instances, the ultimately chosen titles are obviously better, and not just because they’re more familiar to us. Little Dorrit, The Good Soldier, Of Mice and Men, and The Great Gatsby are all nice and specific, whereas the original titles are so vague that they’re basically interchangeable. But as a writer, I hesitate to make too much fun of Fitzgerald et al.—because I too have come up with some awful working titles. “Titles are hard,” as a few fellow writers and I recently noted over coffee.

So what is it exactly that makes a good title? Well, I remember hearing once during a lecture at a writers conference that was otherwise uninteresting that a title should be one of five things: a character, an object, a setting, a plot, or a theme. Thus we have The Great Gatsby (character), The Moonstone (object), Wuthering Heights (setting), War and Peace (plot), and Of Mice and Men (theme), and in some cases a combination of the two, such as Bridshead Revisited (setting and plot) and Pride and Prejudice (plot and theme). It’s a bit reductive, but I do think it helps when you have to brainstorm a better title for your novel or your short story: write out the character, the central object, the setting, some part of the plot, and some articulation of the theme, and then decide which one feels right. Obviously, the title should also reflect whatever is of central importance in the novel or story. Frankenstein might be set in Switzerland, but Geneva doesn’t really get at the core of the novel. In the same way 1984 wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing if it was titled Winston Smith.

Personal preference obviously plays a great part too. After the struggles over my own title (detailed below), I’m now less a fan of the overly thematic titles, unless they have a nice rhythm to them like “A Good Man is Hard To Find” or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—though in those cases, as well as with Of Mice and Men, the themes are articulated in such specific ways that a reader can already get a sense of the novel’s content (the same can’t be said for Nobody’s Fault, The Saddest Story, or Something That Happened). And sometimes the novel itself is so good that the title loses its earlier signification and becomes identified first and foremost with the novel. When I hear the word “atonement” I think first of the Ian McEwan novel (and the Keira Knightly film) and only afterwards of the word’s actual definition.

My own novel, Portrait of Sebastian Khan, originally had the objectively worse title Reflections of the Young Man in Love. I was trying to suggest a double meaning with the word “reflections,” as the foppish central character is often admiring himself in a mirror, but instead all I managed to do was make the novel sound like some arrogant young man’s highly self-serious ruminations. I conveyed nothing of the novel’s half-satirical tone, nothing of the central character’s non-white identity, and most importantly, nothing about art history. My publisher, Leland Cheuk, had me brainstorm about a dozen other possible titles, most of which weren’t very good, as I was still trying too hard to be overly thematic—Portrait of Sebastian Khan was actually one of my throwaway titles, me being as literal as possible for the sake of it. But Leland picked it as one of his two favorites, and soon I realized it was in fact the best one.

One lesson here is that others may know your title better than you do. I’d been thinking for so long about the themes of my novel that I couldn’t see past them, couldn’t look at the book from an outsider’s eyes, from the eyes of a reader who knows nothing about what’s inside. Fitzgerald clearly had a similar experience, which is why we almost got Under the Red, White and Blue. Thankfully, both he and I had some pretty good editors and publishers.