This blog was originally posted on January 14, 2013.
There’s a band called “Tallest Man on Earth” that for quite awhile I thought was called “Tallest Men on Earth.” And I was disappointed to realize I was wrong (never mind that the band is just one guy and so the singular is appropriate), because Tallest Men on Earth just sounds so much more interesting than Tallest Man on Earth. This to me is the perfect lesson on titles. When you see something titled “The Tallest Man on Earth,” you know, or at least you assume you know, exactly what it’s about (he’s a Turk named Sultan Kosen, and he’s eight foot three). But if you see something titled “The Tallest Men on Earth,” that sets a greater mystery—it raises a reader’s curiosity right away.
At the moment, in fiction, nobody is coming up with better titles than Karen Russell. Her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, establishes her sense of humor, the stories’ strangeness, and their originality. But she topped that with her second book, Swamplandia!, a title that I sometimes call out just for the fun of it. Never have I loved an exclamation point more. It’s a title that actually gets stuck in my head. Easy to remember when you’re in the library or the bookstore or recommending things to friends. And like St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, it sets the reader up for what’s to come—a strange, atmospheric novel set largely in an alligator theme park.
Students often struggle with titles. They use a lot of clichés. Or puns. Or abstractions. They often use words that appear in the very first sentence or line of the piece. My advice to students is twofold:
1) You want a title that will draw readers into the poem/story/essay before they read it.
2) You want a title that helps readers see the poem/story/essay in a new light after they’ve read it.
Titles can raise curiosity and they can satisfy it, helping point readers toward an interpretation of a piece. Of course, there are many, many great books with only ordinary titles, or perfectly ordinary books with great titles… a scan of the books piled right in front of me includes this mixed bag: Game of Thrones (I like it!), Farewell, Escape, Sultana’s Dream,Joseph Anton, Water for Elephants and the for-sure winner, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If I judged a book only by its title I certainly wouldn’t be reading Farewell or Escape; given that these are not romance novels, the authors probably didn’t do themselves any favors there. Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, and the brilliance of the title lies in the realization that Joseph Anton was the false identity Rushdie lived under during the Fatwa. It’s a book about that other version of himself; the title points to a reading of the book.
For readers, a title is the beginning of the reading experience and it’s the thing that lingers longest in the end…
And one possible fun exercise for the last day of the semester—have students each brainstorm a title for an unwritten piece and then donate that title to another student as a parting gift—a piece to be written later. It’s a way of getting students to think about titles as their own entity and of encouraging students to keep writing once the semester is done.