Thoughts on book titles and their magic
The Heat of the Sun had many names while I was writing it, not all of which I can remember, but it was originally “Pinkerton,” the surname of the book’s enigmatic lead character. This name struck me as good enough, but not really good. “Blue River” (after the song of that name) was a title I liked a lot, but American novelist Ethan Canin had already used this not so long ago, and there are at least two unrelated movies also called Blue River. The book went to my agent as “The Gravity of Americans,” after the book’s epigraph from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (a chapter in that classic book is entitled, marvellously, “On the gravity of Americans and why it does not prevent them from acting rashly”). The image of “gravity,” in its several meanings, is significant in the novel, and for some months I convinced myself that this was the best title, but some vague dissatisfaction about it nagged at me all the same. There was perhaps something a little too obscure and oblique about it. The publishers thought so too.
Finally, through discussion with both the UK and US publishers, we arrived at The Heat of the Sun, from Shakespeare’s “Fear no more the heat of the sun …” (the song from Cymbeline) which Trouble sings in class in a crucial passage early in the book. It’s hard to think of the book as anything else now. Somebody said to me: “It sounds like a story that’s already famous.” I think that’s why it’s the best title.
Published titles always seem to have an inevitability about them, but many well-known books began life with different titles. F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with my all-time favourite title for a novel, This Side of Paradise. It’s a quotation from Rupert Brooke’s poem “Tiare Tahiti” (“Well this side of paradise! … / There’s little comfort in the wise”), and is to me a perfect title, evoking worlds of romance and sorrow. What it means, or suggests, is the subject of the book: life in this world, with its inevitable imperfections, as opposed to life in the next. Draft titles Fitzgerald considered were “The Romantic Egotist” and “The Education of a Personage,” both of which live on as the titles of the book’s two main parts (as indeed “The Gravity of Americans” lives on as one of my own part-titles).
The Great Gatsby (another tremendous title) had a whole range of abandoned early titles, including “Gold-Hatted Gatsby”, “Under the Red, White and Blue”, and “Trimalchio in West Egg” – Trimalchio being a rich man in the Ancient Roman satire, The Satyricon of Petronius. (A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius , a biography of the celebrated Scribner editor who worked with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, is particularly interesting on the complicated genesis of Fitzgerald’s greatest novel.) Here are some more great titles and their originals:
- Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe): originally “O Lost”
- Ulysses (James Joyce): “Mr Bloom’s Day”
- Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): “First Impressions”
- Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen): “Elinor and Marianne”
- Moby-Dick (Herman Melville): “The Whale”
- Catch-22 (Joseph Heller): “Catch-18” (now why is “22” so much better?).
- Women in Love (D. H. Lawrence): “The Sisters” (Compton Mackenzie in fact gave DHL the final title).
- Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell): “Tomorrow is Another Day”
Ideas of what constitutes a “good” title are of course historically specific. In the early days of the novel, titles almost always derived from the name of the hero or heroine: Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Tom Jones. This practice remained widespread well into the nineteenth century – David Copperfield, Jane Eyre – but by then other conventions were coming to the fore. The gothic novelists of the late eighteenth century had used places in titles, as in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and this grew more common in the nineteenth century: Wuthering Heights, Barchester Towers, King Solomon’s Mines. It also became common to use a title which suggested a theme, such as Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair, or otherwise announced the nature of the story, as in Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? or Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend.
Titles derived from quotations, usually from the Bible, Shakespeare, or other classics, were popular in the early twentieth century: The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, The Power and the Glory. One of my favourite titles of this sort is E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. It’s neither too obvious nor too portentous. It’s a quotation from Walt Whitman that is both mystical and down to earth, suggesting at once a spiritual journey (“Passage O my soul to India,” says Whitman in a poem, itself called “Passage to India,” which commemorates the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869) and the “passage” a traveller has reserved on a ship (if you’d bought a ticket on P&O to India, the customary way to describe this was to say, “I’ve booked my passage”).
What are the ingredients of a good modern title? Titles which seem good to me can be anything from single words (John Updike’s Couples) to article-plus-noun (Christopher Priest is the modern master of this: The Affirmation, The Glamour, The Prestige, The Separation) to lengthy phrases (By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Pop-song references are now increasingly popular and generally, in my view, to be avoided, although sometimes they are powerful if the phrase itself is interesting and not merely an invitation to recall the song, e.g. Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma, from the song of that name by 1980s British group The Smiths. Generally I despise play-on-words titles, although occasionally they have worked well, as in Alison Lurie’s marvellous comedy of marriage The War Between the Tates, which, as a non-American, I took some time to recognise as an ironic twist on the phrase “the war between the states,” i.e., the American Civil War.
Clearly, a title need not be too specific. I sometimes think: the less specific, the better. The title doesn’t, in any way, have to explain what the story is about. Nobody, on first picking up the book, has any idea what The Catcher in the Rye means, but that doesn’t matter: it’s an evocative and strange image. (It is, as is revealed quite some way into Salinger’s story, a mangling of a line in the Robert Burns lyric, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.”)
Good titles have an element of poetry. They are at once abstract and appropriate, possibly in mysterious ways. The best titles, the classic titles, make us want to read the book simply because of what it’s called – the phrase is so evocative in itself that it fills us with desire, before we know anything at all about the story. Here are some more I think are brilliant:
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee: from an image used in the novel)
- Dancer from the Dance (Andrew Holleran: from Yeats, “Among School Children”)
- A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess: Cockney saying, “queer as a clockwork orange”)
- The Razor’s Edge (W. Somerset Maugham; line from Hindu sacred texts, The Upanishads: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard”)
- The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (Randolph Stow: an image in the novel)
Truman Capote, in Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations with Capote (1985), is at one point asked to name his favourite titles for novels. Here are the ones he comes up with:
- Ultramarine (Malcolm Lowry: a beautiful word)
- Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë: perhaps the best place-name title ever)
- Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen: that alliteration does it every time)
- Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell: how many people today realise that this is a quotation from a poem by Ernest Dowson?)
- Remembrance of Things Past (Proust: in French, À la recherche du temps perdu; C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s title for the original English translation derives from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 [“I summon up remembrance of things past …”]; the book’s modern translators prefer the more literal but, to me, less evocative rendering, In Search of Lost Time)
- The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway; from Ecclesiastes 1.4-5: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose …” Incredibly, the original English publisher rejected this title, and the book was known for decades in the UK as Fiesta)
- Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe: from Milton’s “Lycidas”; such a great title)
- The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, of course)
- Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald, again, from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”)
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers: a genius at titles, e.g. Reflections in a Golden Eye or The Member of the Wedding)
- Other Voices, Other Rooms (Capote being Capote, his own book)
I like, indeed love, all these choices. But if I had to name the best modern writer of consistently great titles, it wouldn’t be Malcolm Lowry or Hemingway or even Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. I’d go for Aldous Huxley:
- Crome Yellow (the name of the country house in which the book is set)
- Antic Hay (from Marlowe’s Edward II; refers to a frenetic dance)
- Those Barren Leaves (from Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)
- Point Counter Point (alludes to “counterpoint” in music)
- Brave New World (from Shakespeare, The Tempest)
- Eyeless in Gaza (“Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves …” – from Milton’s Samson Agonistes)
- After Many a Summer (in the US: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan – from Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” about a mythological character who is granted eternal life, but not eternal youth, and hence grows older and older and cannot die)
- Time Must Have a Stop (from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One)
These are the titles, in order, of Huxley’s first eight novels. Has any other writer, in the entire history of literature, ever had such a magnificent run?