22. December 2019 · Comments Off on Title-ville · Categories: Olio

Lately I’ve noticed that movie titles have been loaded with misdirection. A Star is Born is not an astronomy documentary (I wish it was!), Joker is not a comedy (ditto for wishing). A Marriage Story is really a divorce story (well done, but watching two people scream at each other off and on for two hours is no fun). Uncut Gems is not gay porn (which is probably a good thing). OK, I’m joking more than a bit, but titles are important.

I self-titled one of my books, Gone for Good. Oxford Press didn’t object, but in hindsight it sounds bleak and dour. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that if only I had given that book the title The Fault in Our Stars and Universities it would have sold a million copies easily. But like I say, I’m being delusional… and silly. Lofty sounding titles do sell, though. If Hemingway had tried to sell The Sun Also Rises as Jake and Brett it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Intriguing titles sell, too. The Great Gatsby, yes. West Egg Tales would have bombed.

I know the person who came up with the novel title Primary Colors. It’s simple and clever. I also know the person who came up with The Lovely Bones, also simple and clever. Titles with exotic or romantic cities in them work well, too. Death in Venice, for instance, is a classic just for the title alone.

I didn’t title The Mathematician’s Shiva. I bit my lip when I first heard that title so the person on the phone wouldn’t hear me groan. The worst thing you can do to a book is give it a The Noun’s Noun title, but that’s what I got stuck with. Despite that crummy title, TMS managed to sell well and continues to sell. Titles aren’t everything. The Dean’s December was a snooze of a title and yet the novel did well back in the day. But just think if TMS had been titled I Know Why the Russian Mathematician Sings or A Gentle Lady from Moscow. It would have been on bestseller lists for years. I’m being silly again, sorry. On a serious note, I tried to get TMS titled The Millennium Prize and as time passes that proposed title looks better and better to me.

I never thought I was particularly good at titling books, just didn’t believe I had the knack for it. I decided it was OK, actually preferable, to let the pros at selling do their thing and come up with titles on their own. But nowadays, I think differently. If I’m not good at titles, I better get good at them. It’s a simple skill. I should be able to learn it. If I publish any new books, I’m going to try my damnedest to make sure that the title on the cover is as much my work as what is inside.

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