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Book titles matter: Comedian fizzles with spoof website.

May 4, 2011

Leo as Gatsby in the new film version of "Drink Responsibly."

Titles are important to me, as a serious pleasure reader, so it was with great interest that I discovered a website purporting to improve on the titles of famous and classic books. Instead of enlightenment, however, I quickly ran up against the limits of  wise-ass comedy.

A good title can not only induce me to read a book I might otherwise pass by, but it can also upgrade the entire reading experience by echoing (what’s called “resonance” in the lit-crit biz), through the entire narrative.

Some great titles: Catch-22. Cat’s Cradle. Vanity Fair. The Sun Also Rises. Life on the Mississippi. West with the Night. Great Expectations. A Sentimental Education. The Door Into Summer. Wise Blood. Out of Africa. Pride and Prejudice. Notes From Underground. I Was Told There’d Be Cake. Me Talk Pretty One Day. The Killer Inside Me. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Secret Garden.

Not all of these titles hint at the story or themes inside — the most obvious criteria for a good book title — but they all add something indispensable by the time a reader has turned the last page.

Then there are the titles that just sit there, like an ugly hat with a pretty Easter dress, serving no purpose before, during or after the reading experience: The Great Gatsby. Wuthering Heights. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. Martin Chuzzlewit. Far From the Madding Crowd. Silas Marner. The Guernsey Literary and Patato Peel Pie Society. The Fixer. Enemies: A Love Story. Duane’s Depressed. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. On Chesil Beach.

Many of these books are good and some are great, indeed, but not one is well served by its title.

So you can imagine my interest — nay, excitement, when I turned to betterbooktitles.com, a site manned by a comedian named Dan Wilbur, who proposes that book titles should be premised first and foremost on truth in advertising. Thus, he impressed me mightly with the first title correction I saw:

The Great Gatsby should, Wilbur says, more aptly be titled Drink Responsibly. Aha!, I thought, we’re onto something here, but then I quickly discovered that Wilbur’s project, though not without flashes of wit, is entirely about being funny, without a shred of literary seriousness regarding the problem of titles in general.

Thus Where the Wild Things Are becomes Skipping Dinner is Like Dropping Acid. Lolita becomes Likable Rapists. Fahrenheit 451 becomes Texas Public Schools. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire becomes Two Guys, One Cup. The Handmaid’s Tale becomes Sarah Palin’s America. Of Human Bondage becomes Gimps and Hos.

As you can see, these are not bad. The rule of thumb seems to be the shorter Wilbur’s replacement tittles — the more they look like actual book titles — the funnier and more effective they are. But most of his efforts, and those offered by his fans, are jokes, just jokes, nothing more.

A few wretched examples? Okey-doke: A Streetcar Named Desire is now Sexual Assault Saved My Marriage. Huckleberry Finn is One of My Friends is Black. The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo is This is the First Book I’ve Read in Six Years. A People’s History of the United States is White People Ruin Everything. James and the Giant Peach is It’s Okay if Giant Fruit Kills Your Aunts So Long as They Were Bitches.

Those aren’t titles, they’re sentences, or, worse, the names of emo rock bands. Some may be amusing, but with one or two exceptions they suffer from having next to nothing to do with the actual book.

So while you may enjoy visiting Wilbur’s site, especially if you like ironic smart-dumb humor of the David Letterman variety, you will have to look elsewhere for any real insight into the art and craft of book titles.

Maybe I should retitle this blog: “What a Hump Day Disappointment.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean Piccoli permalink
    May 4, 2011 12:33 pm

    The Phantom Tollbooth, Setting Free the Bears and ‘Salem’s Lot are three titles I like of books I’ve read.

    There are tons more whose titles are intriguing, poetic or clever enough to keep them on the must-read-someday list: Love Among the Ruins, The Bluest Eye, Johnny Mnemonic.

    In that category I actually like Enemies: A Love Story, which has a nice oppositional snap to it, and the ethereal and mythological sound of The Handmaid’s Tale. They’re evocative even if I don’t know what they’re evoking until I get past the cover.

    I would rename War and Peace as Are We There Yet.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 4, 2011 2:26 pm

      Enemies: A Love Story — a novel I like, by the way — has always seemed painfully obvious as a title. That’s why it’s been spoofed and punned so much over the years. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a perfctly servicable title, much superior to, say, Oryx and Crake. I can recommend Love Among teh Ruins. Tasty.

  2. May 4, 2011 1:22 pm

    I always thought C. S. Lewis had a way with titles. Examples: “A Severe Mercy,” “The Weight of Glory,” “The Abolition of Man,” “That Hideous Strength,” “A Grief Observed,” “The World’s Last Night.”

    • Sean Piccoli permalink
      May 4, 2011 2:23 pm

      Grand but not too grandiose. I also like “Perelandra.”

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        May 4, 2011 2:34 pm

        That Hideous Strength is overbearing for my taste, but otherwise I agree about Lewis, who also happened to be one of the greatest English prose stylists of the 20th century. I derive great pleasure from reading him, especially the essays, even when I think he’s serously barking down the wrong hole. I’d add: Till We Have Faces, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves and The Problem of Pain.

        That Hideous Strength, by the way, is my favorite among his science fiction novels, despite the clunker of a title.

  3. May 4, 2011 8:51 pm

    Actually, I really like “The Handmaid’s Tale becomes Sarah Palin’s America.” Or maybe Atwood could add the Palin part as a subtitle? Just kidding (sort of). War & Peace is one of the greatest titles ever, it’s an exact translation from the Russian and captures Tolstoy themes perfectly. I also like The Grapes of Wrath, a compelling title for me. The Sound & the Fury is another gripping title. Faulkner was pretty good with titles. Hemingway generally wasn’t.

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