What’s in a title? A procrastinating author’s worst fears are realised

FOR some of us, the fun just goes on. First, the Queen. Second, Obama.

Third, Listowel Writers Week. No, don’t laugh. For a bookaholic, getting to deliver a journalism workshop in Listowel comes close to treat-of-the-year.

Even setting aside the probability that at least one of the workshop participants will write like an angel, there’s the thrill of meeting famous writers and discovering they’re human.

If I had the money, I’d throw in a competition, this year, to find an inspired title for my next book. I’m bad at book titles and have to be rescued, usually by the publisher. But then, when it comes to fiction, I even have problems putting names on characters. I get started on a novel with a cast of thousands, designated in my head as “the main one,” “the mother,” “the slithery sister” and so on. It gets confusing for me, never mind for a prospective reader, so I end up going along the spines of books on the shelves and doing pick-and-mix using author’s names: Evan Dickens, Marguerite Tey, Anthony Sexton.

You can’t do pick-and-mix with titles, though. The book on which I’m currently overdue and which doesn’t yet have a title is about fear. Someone who was trying to help suggested as a possible title “Fear of Flying” on the basis that fear of flying is one of the most general fears around, but I rejected it because, first of all, the book is about every available kind of fear, and anyway, as a title, it’s already spoken for.

“Your one, Erica Jong used it for that book that was subtitled The Zipless Fuck,” I explained.

The young people in the office froze, exemplifying the eternal verity that younger people are always taken aback when older people a) swear, b) indicate that they have had sex. The latter is particularly problematic. Every generation believes the previous generation didn’t really have sex at all (although there wouldn’t be a younger generation if they hadn’t) or if they did, only had it when anaesthetised, intoxicated or out of a severe sense of duty, and even then, only in the most missionary of configurations. It’s the same with swearing or profanity. I was totally thrown, this weekend, when my next door neighbour, a woman of advanced years, impregnable virtue and unmatched strength of mind, happened to allude to the alleged sexual track record of Dominic Strauss-Kahn.

“That fella’d do a cat going out a skylight,” she observed. I did the distinctive double-take occasioned by the belief that the other person wouldn’t, couldn’t and didn’t utter what it sounded like they’d uttered. She had, though, and who was I to argue the point? I’ve never witnessed a cat going out a skylight.

Anyway, for all sorts of reasons, including the possibility of being sued, Fear of Flying won’t fly. I need something that will cover the full spectrum of ambient terror, including fear of death, drowning, illness, accident, peanuts, public speaking, flying, fame, age, media, insects and birds. Birds, for most people, are a joy, but my next- door neighbour — her of the cat and the skylight — has a crippling horror of dead birds, while Ireland’s EU commissioner has a matching fear of live ones. The latter’s phobia is so ferocious as to prevent her ever entering a house containing a budgie.

Selecting a title is one of the points at which the relationship between writer and the editor in the publishing house can become severely fraught. F Scott FitzGerald drove his unfortunate editor Maxwell Perkins (who, God bless his little cotton socks, also had to cope with Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and lent all of them money) mad wanting his magnum opus to come out under the title Trimalchio in West Egg. Trimalchio, as every reader will remember, being the rich patron of Petronius’s Satyricon. Perkins pointed out that nobody knew how to pronounce Trimalchio, adding that to put a prospective purchaser through the hassle of asking for an unpronounceable book might not be inspired marketing. FitzGerald eventually caved in and went with The Great Gatsby, but he never liked it as a title.

Perkins was right, of course, as were the editors and publishers who refused to accept The Mute as a title for the book published as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, who preferred All the Presidents’ Men to At this Point in Time and who rejected To Climb the Wall in favour of The Blackboard Jungle.

While the search for the perfect title can put pressure on relationships between writers and their publishers, that does not seem to be an inevitability. Finding a title isn’t always a bone of contention. George Eliot’s publisher was so committed to selecting one that pleased both sides that he had mock-up title pages printed carrying alternative possibilities. Seeing them in print clarified Eliot’s thinking and helped her reject The House of Tulliver and opt instead for The Mill on the Floss.

Although publishers and book sales representatives logically should have impregnably well-honed intuition about book titles, they don’t. After the war, when he was asked what he was going to write next, novelist and war correspondent William L Shirer’s answer was crisp. “I not only know what I’m going to write,” he answered, “I even know the title. It’s going to be called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

HIS own publisher wouldn’t touch it, and by the time he got an advance of $10,000 from another publisher, Simon & Schuster, it represented $1,000 a year for each of his 10 years’ research. Nor did it seem as if he’d make anything beyond the advance, because the publisher’s salespeople were so convinced they couldn’t sell a book with such a lousy title that the initial print run was small. In fact, it became an international bestseller, still in print.

Every second writer, of course, wants a line from Shakespeare, and a fair number of them have succeeded, creating a long list of book titles lifted from the Bard, including Brave New World, Summer’s Ease, The Winter of our Discontent and The Sound and the Fury. Writers also favour lines from poetry. John Steinbeck picked Of Mice and Men from Robert Burns’ four simple lines:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men

Gang aft a-gley

And leave us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy.

Steinbeck might have been well advised to stay with poetry as a source for book titles. When he abandoned verse and created The Wayward Bus as the name for a novel, the entire first printing of the book was destroyed by fire before a single volume reached a reader. That happened in an eerie incident when the truck taking them to the distributors exploded and burned out, following a collision with a bus being driven on the wrong side of the road.

None of which brings me any closer to a title for a book about fear, but then writers are notorious for finding excuses to avoid grappling with any aspect of their next book.

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