Quite a lot, apparently. For a very long time, I couldn’t think of a name for the novel I’m working on. One of my sons was quite bothered by this. When the subject would turn to my writing, he’d ask me if I’d thought of a title yet. The novel wasn’t real until I came up with something. After a while, I did think of one: The Secret War. It’s what people called the Cold War, the time period in which my book is set. The hero is a guy who works at the National Security Agency. The secret war is his business. Most of my book is set in Germany, in 1969. My hero’s been to Germany before, just as the war was ending, and he’s hoped never to have to go there again. The novel opens just as he learns he’ll be going back. The book is a mystery and mysteries are always about secrets — in this case, the secrets are about what people did during the second world war.
Every once in a while, though, I find myself wondering if I got it right. This is one of those times. And that’s why lately I have been thinking about the names other people have given their novels. In my not very systematic review of titles, I noticed a Person, Place, Thing tendency among novelists. Most titles are nouns, and most often they are simply the name of the main character: Don Quixote, Huck Finn, Sula, Madame Bovary, Daniel Deronda, David Copperfield, The Cat in the Hat, the Woman in White, the Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre. And even a title like The Beautiful and the Damned refers to a group of people.
And when titles are not the name of a character, they are the name of a place: The Mill on the Floss, Howard’s End, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barchester Towers, The Street, Austerlitz, Wuthering Heights.
Occasionally, you find a person and a place combined: The Vicar of Wakefield, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Brown Girl, Brownstones.
As for things; generally they’re things and people combined– how about The Eustace Diamonds? Humboldt’s Gift?
There are also titles that are basically verb forms: On the Road, To the Lighthouse, Passage to India, the Voyage Out, Digging to America, even As I Lay Dying — all novels that employ some sense of movement and journey in their titles. The Odyssey is the ur-title here.
Perhaps exhausted by what might be a Victorian tendency toward Person, Place, Thing naming, modern writers often favor quotations. I don’t know if this is a sign of some kind of exhaustion of originality which might be fodder for the deconstructionist I did not become — but I give you: The Sound and the Fury, A Separate Peace, For Whom the Bell Tolls… wait a minute, Vanity Fair — maybe this is not so modern after all. But what about 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley’s theft from Wallace Stevens?
And don’t forget novels with titles that are attributes: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility. Still, this might be seen as a version of title as character because each of these attributes belongs to a woman who’s important in the novels. It’s just a clever way of doing it.
This look at naming was an interesting exercise, but not as helpful as I’d hoped in making sure I’ve done a decent job naming my book. The one I have now, The Secret War, doesn’t have much in common with the great books I’ve just mentioned. Neither a place, nor a name, nor an attribute, nor something or someone in motion.) So, I turned to titles from the Golden Age of the Mystery for assistance.
Dorothy Sayers: Murder Must Advertise, Strong Poison, Gaudy Nights. Hmm. Clever, but not really person, place or thing.
Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs, Murder on the Orient Express. Nursery Rhymes, puns, straight across Murder….
I could say more, but I have the suspicion that mystery writers title their books differently than literary fiction writers — possibly they rely more on a title that’s a bit of a mystery itself, a title that’s a sort of sleight of hand, as a pun is, a title that partakes a little of the mystery form itself. And that, after all, is what The Secret War delivers — it has several meanings (the cold war, the secrets about the war the main character discovers…) These kinds of titles make this promise to the reader — the mystery will surprise you, things will appear one way but will actually turn out another. This theory is still unformed, and more research will need to be done. But this is my preliminary finding, for what it’s worth.
And now, I turn to you, Dear Reader. What are your favorite title categories? Can you think of another good title for my mystery? How do you think of things to title your blog posts? Meditate on titles for a moment, and see if you can resist making up titles of your own.