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?