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Book Titles – (Don’t) Call It What You Like

Posted on the 15 March 2012 by Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Book Titles – (Don’t) Call It What You Like

Since writing about the importance of titles in Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?  I’ve given this subject a lot more thought and I’m delighted that bestselling crime writer Sophie Hannah has shared her experience of creating great titles with me for this piece.

What makes a good book title?

A good title gives a flavour of the novel’s theme, tone and genre; it sounds interesting, entertaining, possibly intriguing (the last being particularly popular in the UK); it is original, maybe clever and must be memorable.  A great title is often all it takes to make us want to read a book.  It’s an awful lot to ask of a few little words!  A bland or misleading title spells disaster – it won’t get noticed or talked about; it may put people off and if it sounds like something it isn’t, the book risks bypassing its target market altogether.

As an experiment, I looked in the window of one of my favourite bookshops, Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street earlier this week (see photo). Of those I hadn’t already heard of, the title which appealed to me most was Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (Leif Persson), of which more later.  I haven’t read all the books I mention here, but those I can recommend (not just for the title) are in bold.

The ‘Literary’

I’m drawn to beautiful, poetic titles, both in their own right and because they inspire confidence in the author’s writing.  For me, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote some of the best ever; I love The Beautiful and Damned (even more with the extra ‘the’ that people often mistakenly add to it).  R J Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels, like my favourite from the shop window, is in fact a crime novel with a literary feel.  A new novel I am keenly awaiting is The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman (26 April 2012) -  such a gorgeous title!

The One Worders

There’s something very powerful about a title consisting of a single abstract word:  Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), Disgrace (J M Coetzee), Atonement (and several others by Ian McEwan).  It conveys a sense of drama and belief in the novel’s central idea, at the risk of sounding slightly arrogant.  No problem, I say, as long as the book delivers.  The problem is, the best words have already been taken…

Book Titles – (Don’t) Call It What You Like

Throw in a nice glass of something chilled and I'm in heaven. Long live Daunt Books!

The Whimsical

I’m not usually a fan of cute and quirky titles, but I suspect I’m in the minority judging by how many books are called The [Something or Other]Club/Society or [Someone’s] Guide to [Something], to give just two examples.  Left to my own devices, I would never have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I enjoyed, and I’m excited about A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson (5 July 2012).  This one sounds original, exotic and fun.

The ‘Referential’

Very tricky territory.  Use something overly familiar and you have a cliché; if, on the other hand, the reader doesn’t get the reference, that’s a problem too.  Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry is an adapted line from a Blake poem but this was lost on me - my baffled reaction was ‘Whose?’  I love the novel And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, but the title took ages to grow on me.  If you can get over it beginning with ‘And’, it’s actually a pretty ingenious choice for a novel written in the first person plural about the demise of an ad agency; it’s also a quote from the first line of Don DeLillo’s Americana, but I was’t aware of any of those things.  Somewhere in between these extremes, I think Ali Smith’s There But For The is a great title – we know the expression but somehow she adds something by not completing it.

Book Titles – (Don’t) Call It What You Like
Cultural differences are another reason to tread carefully.  Sophie Hannah’s seventh psychological crime novel Kind of Cruel has just been published in the UK.  I think she comes up with brilliantly cryptic titles but I wanted to find out why most of her novels have a different title for the US edition.  This is what she told me:

“My US publishers think my English titles are too subtle.  Hence my novel The Point of Rescue was published in America under the name The Wrong Mother, and A Room Swept White became The Cradle in the Grave.  The difference in both cases, as you can see, is that the English titles are less revealing and more metaphorical (for example, in The Point of Rescue, you don’t find out why it’s called that until the very end).  Whereas from the American titles, it’s pretty clear that The Wrong Mother is about someone who’s not very well suited to parenting and The Cradle in the Grave is about the murder of a child or children.  I actually don’t mind the double-title effect – now I try to think up both: a US title and an English title for every book.”

I find that fascinating and would love to know what you think, especially if you’re American!

Titles in Translation

As the English language market is one of the biggest in the world it’s a bit ironic that the book I chose from the window, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, was originally written in Swedish.  This happens to be a near-literal translation, but it  doesn’t often work out that way.  Louise Millar’s debut thriller The Playdate (26 April 2012) is already on sale in Dutch as Kom je Spelen? (lit. ‘coming to play?’) and the German title is Allein Die Angst, from an expression that translates roughly as ‘the fear alone,’ which has a very different feel.  As it’s a borrowed American term, it won’t need a different title in the USA.

Titles in the Making

As any writer knows, titles are often changed in the process of publication.  Fellow aspiring writer Jackie Buxton recently took the unusual step of consulting the readers of her blog on a dilemma between her original title Glass Houses and an alternative, resulting in a lively debate which you can read at www.jackiebuxton.blogspot.com.   In my case, the entire novel sprang from the title, which came to me before I started writing.  It’s called Nothing Happens for a Reason, or at least I really hope it will be…

Many thanks to Sophie Hannah, whose all-time favourite title is An Instance of the Fingerpost (Ian Pears).

I asked my Twitter followers for their favourites – thanks to Nan Bovington, Kristin Celms, Daniela Sacerdoti, Eva Hudson, Jackie Buxton, Pam Spurr, Carol Lovekin and Cherry Radford for the following great contributions:

By Grand Central Station, I sat down and wept (Elizabeth Smart)

Alias Grace (Margaret Attwood)

This is not Forgiveness (Celia Rees)

Started Early, Took my Dog (Kate Atkinson)

Glasshopper (Isabel Ashdown)

New Ways To Kill Your Mother (Colm Toibin)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (Maggie O’Farrell)

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Philip K Dick) – which became the film Total Recall.  I think I can see why they changed it!

Please share your own favourite book titles, or tell me what you’d have chosen from the window!


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