Magazine article The Spectator

What's in a Name?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's in a Name?

Article excerpt


W. W. Norton, L7.95, pp. 127

Bleak House would still be one of the greatest novels even with an alternative title as bizarre as Tom-All-Alone's Factory that Got Into Chancery and Never Got Out. Titles do not make a difference to the quality of the book. But they do make a difference to sales, and perhaps to critical reception. And one cannot help wondering whether the entire course of Victorian literature might have changed if titles like Tom-All-Alone's &c. had become commonplace. One also wonders what on earth Dickens had had for breakfast the morning he seriously entertained the idea.

It is musings like this that Andre Bernard's book inspires, although he makes no attempt to explore further. This is a work of quick reference and easy bitesize laughs, with no pretensions to serious analysis. It would be fascinating to know more: how many authors have happened upon their titles while asleep, for instance? And have any had the excruciating experience of finding the perfect title only after their book has appeared in print? But for that you must look elsewhere. This is an entertaining ragbag, and no more.

It is intriguing to discover quite how bad some authors can be at entitling their books. Dickens could be erratic, as we have seen. One must be grateful that we have Martin Chuzzlewit and not Martin Chuzzletoe or, God help us, Martin Sweetledew. Nor was Dickens an isolated case. Not only did F. Scott Fitzgerald seriously entertain the idea of Trimalchio at West Egg for what became The Great Gatsby, but he continued to lament that he had not used this after publication. The point is that Trimalchio at West Egg is not a bad title per se, but its rather sophomoric wackiness seems so acutely at odds with the gilded tale of Jay Gatsby.

There are authors, however, who seem to possess what amounts to a genius for titles. Raymond Chandler's rejected titles are better than most that get published: one longs to read such non-books as All Guns are Loaded, for instance, or Lament but No Tears.

Writers must grudgingly acknowledge that editors generally make suggestions for the better. …

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