In a previous post I stressed the importance of assigning a working title to your novel (short story, essay, screen play…) before you begin to write it. But I had nothing to say about titles themselves. A good title serves at least two functions. It specifies (or, at least, suggests) what the writing is about and, perhaps more importantly, imposes one or more layers of constraint upon the writer.
Even vague titles limit the content that follows, which is good, because nothing creative can succeed without limits. That seems strange at first if not simply wrong. I think it was well-known lecturer and clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson who convincingly illustrated the necessity of applying limits (boundaries, structure, constraints…) to establish meaning when being creative. During an online interview, his premise went something like this; the absence of limits in creative effort results in meaninglessness and chaos, not freedom and art. To prove his point, Dr. Peterson suggested that he and his host play a game. When the host agreed, Peterson said, “Okay, you go first.”
“I don’t understand,” was his host’s answer, who went glassy-eyed immediately.
“It’s your move,” Peterson said. “Do anything you want.”
The blank stare persisted, as it had to, and Peterson’s point was made. Any meaningful “game” must be understood in terms of its rules. What is its object? How does one win?
By titling your novel, Life on the Mississippi, you limit its scope immensely. Call it Gravity’s Rainbow, perhaps not so much. (But nobody truly knows what that novel was about despite its notoriety, which perhaps helps prove the point.) As Jiminy Cricket advised Pinocchio, “Always let your title be your guide.”
Any activity not bound by constraints, limits, rules or definitions, can only result in meaninglessness. Would you, for example, be likely to begin reading a book that had no title? How about one entitled Two Thousand Pages of Disconnected Thoughts? A potential reader might pick that up, I suppose, anticipating something clever from the author, but if the piece was faithful to its label, the investigation would likely end before the first paragraph.
Even vague, imprecise and playful book titles impose limits upon what will follow, especially in combination with their subtitles. Some of my favorites (just a list, I’ve only read one of the following and deeply regretted it) …
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
- So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams
- An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
- I Could Pee On This: And Other Poems By Cats, Francesco Marciuliano
Maybe someone should publish a compendium of off-the-wall book titles?
What would he or she call it?
Some book titles do no more than announce their intent. For example, the best American novel ever written, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, informs the reader up front—no teasing or mystery—about what’s to come, adventures and a fellow named Finn. The same is largely true for The Diary of Anne Frank, The Great Train Robbery and The Bridge on the River Kwai. A reader learns what to expect from the book and the writer is bound to deliver certain goods.
This is more than simply helpful, it’s essential. By reducing infinite possibility to a nearly-infinite set, a work’s title gives it a fighting chance to advance. But what about less-specific titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension? These are intended less to inform than to startle, tweak or mystify. Mathematician Raymond Smullyan, for example, titled his brilliant book of puzzles, What Is the Name of This Book? and very successfully tempted puzzle-lovers to read it.
All titles, whether good or bad, present promises and create expectations that an author must satisfy. Scope, style and pace are all impacted. Every word, sentence, paragraph, chapter and section of a novel must conform to the title that binds them. If a writer betrays his title and its constraints, he betrays the reader as well and likely loses him. As for the title of this mini-essay, Why Harney Rode Away for His Hat, it’s from Huckleberry Finn, my all-time favorite chapter heading. My intent in using it to head this piece was to stir up a bit of curiosity while being playful.
As for this post’s subtitle, I guess I got carried away.