Writers know that pesky moment: You have to decide on a title for your novel, short story, article or blog post. Newspaper people are lucky – they file their stories and someone else dreams up a catchy title. My friend and longtime editor Dave Scantland calls himself the Title ‘Ho: he has the knack, and has offered advice to more successful writers than I. (Happy Birthday tomorrow, Dave.)

If you don’t have a title you like, anything you write seems raggedy and unfinished. Sometimes it’s easy: my title of my Tourtiere piece at eGullet.org came like a flash. . Christmas en Croute. But that’s an exception.—I’ve mostly had to tear my hair and rend a couple of garments and sacrifice a couple of goats to come up with something I’m barely satisfied with.

Then I think of the Great Writers, men and women whose hems I’m not worthy to touch, have not necessarily been fab titlists. “Hamlet?” “The Last Chronicle of Barset?” “Pere Goriot?” “Mrs. Dalloway?” “Mansfield Park?” Just saying.

I think writers below the level of sublimity have better titles skills. Mystery, thriller and noir ladies and gents from Conan Doyle, through Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and Nero Wolfe can put up terrific titles. “The Long Goodbye.” “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” “Some Buried Caesar.” The Redheaded League.”

“And Then There Were None.” “The Thirty Nine Steps.” “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

I regret to say that although I loathe Ayn Rand’s beliefs I think “Atlas Shrugged” is brilliant. And then there are “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  “The Manticore” and “The Joy Luck Club.” And I love “The Dharma Bums.”

But you know what my all-time favorite title is? It’s from that writer’s writer, John McPhee. I didn’t understand the physics when I first read it in “The New Yorker” eons ago, and I don’t think I’d understand it now, even with McPhee’s crystalline prose guiding me though it. But I think “The Curve of Binding Energy” is the most beautiful title in any language and any era. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t care. I like thinking about it, reading it and letting it flow off my tongue. Pure poetry.

So, what titles resonate with you?



Filed under History, Into the Mystic, Library Card, Media, Paper

6 responses to “Untitled

  1. Lloyd

    In no particular order:

    Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin

    The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

    My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

    The first two force the reader to enquire further; the last tells the reader exactly what is inside.

  2. Stillmeadow; The Rolling Years; The Dove Found No Rest—hated the book; read it when I was nine.

    And for a ticky-tack conglomeration which I love, and which caught my eye on a Goodwill shelf and introduced me to James Lee Burke and the indomitable Dave Robicheaux: In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead.

    And while we’re at it: The Lost Get-Back Boogie, Cadillac Jukebox and Jolie Blon’s Bounce— ditto.

  3. I could go on about titles for quite a while. I agree that “Atlas Shrugged” is a title robbed of a good novel, and that “Christmas en Croute” was inspired (both in title and writing). But you’ve left out an entire category of titling: the southern gothics.

    There are biblical and Shakespearean references of Faulkner, Welty’s near-poems (The Ponder Heart, The Optimist’s Daughter, 3 Minutes or Less) — and of course, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Then there’s Harry Crews’ “Fathers, Sons, Blood,” O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” and almost anything named by Tennessee Williams.

    But maybe the best titler among southerners (or anyone) was the late William Styron. What a string: “Lie Down in Darkness,” “Set This House Afire,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” “This Quiet Dust,” “Havanas in Camelot,” “Darkness Visible.” There are more, but I’m breathless.

  4. Those two words: “Darkness Visible” have haunted me for years. And my reading friends, your contributions are kick ass. Lloyd, did you know that “My Family and Other Animals” is in my Top 20? Gotta find a copy. Rachel, what can I say — you’re always right.

  5. Naaaah. Charlie Brown’s taking her doggie and her horsie and slinking home.

  6. My all time favorite short story and short story title wrapped up in one: Trouble is My Business

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