Searching for the Perfect Title: Amy Wilentz on 'The Rainy Season' and 'Martyrs' Crossing'
A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.
It’s worth thinking about other writers’ really good titles when you start brooding about naming your own book. Why do they work?
Here’s a title for all time: The Way We Live Now. A novel by Anthony Trollope, true. But it can be repurposed for narrative non-fiction, anthropology, political science … and it has been. It’s endlessly useful, because it’s empty, yet urgent (that Now), and we all want to have our lives explained to us.
Here’s another: War and Peace. Again empty and waiting to be filled with the meaning of the book, yet gigantic and important. We care right away. Some writers, feeling self-important and at the top of their game, choose titles with just one abstract word, as in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. And at the end of the book one is left wondering why, other than the drumbeat repetition of the word within the text.
But other times, a one-word title happens to be just right, such as William Shawcross’ brilliant Sideshow, about the desolation and killings associated with the war in Vietnam that did not take place in Vietnam. To be fair, Sideshow has an explanatory subtitle — Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia — but non-fiction often does.
My favorite title for a novel (other than the idiosyncratic and inimitable Moby-Dick — which has a much ignored explanatory subtitle, or, the Whale) is Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. In Bleak House, you barely notice Bleak House itself, and when you do see what Bleak House is, you realize the house isn’t bleak at all, it is bright and beautiful and reflects the lovely soul of its proprietor. It is the site of happiness, and a reconstituted family, and an unbreakable but profoundly assaulted love. Bleak House is where the main protagonists of the book gather and we see them there in their best light. Dickens could have called the house and the book Sunnyvale, but Sunnyvale wouldn’t have interested us, and more important would not have conveyed the darkness and power of the novel. It wouldn’t have made you feel, on putting the book down, finally, that all England, and especially London, is in the grips of an oppressive system that grinds humanity down. Bleak House does that.
And plus: the title sounds good. Real estate almost always provides good title. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia comes to mind, or Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
Depends on the place, though. Mississippi is evocative, Patagonia is mystical. But not all places work. Try In Rhode Island. No. Life in Staten Island. I don’t think so. D.J. Waldie, who wrote a great book about suburban anomie, had the sense not to call it In Lakewood, but rather Holy Land. With the explanatory and seemingly contradictory subtitle, A Suburban Memoir.
When I am writing a book, I’m always trying on titles as if they were eveningwear for my workmanlike piece of writing. One is too elegant, another too transparent, another too old-fashioned, another, somehow, boxy or too contemporary.
When I was writing my first book, I was living in Haiti and reporting on Haiti and writing about Haiti. I had this little apartment in a small complex for foreigners that was expanding daily. I was alone when I wasn’t out reporting, and I had a Hermes Rocket typewriter, white plastic, very small, that clacked and binged a lot. I’d put it on the “dining room” table, facing a big window that opened on the canyon at the bottom of which I lived, amid garbage and birds and rats. I was working my way through reporting and note taking. Every day then in Haiti (and every day now) was filled with event. I was pushed and pulled from one thing to another, always exhausted, always underfed. For years, I couldn’t figure out how to feed myself in Haiti.
And all the time, like a little gnawing anxiety, I was wondering what I should call this thing that, as I grew thinner and thinner, was growing fatter and fatter, into a sizable pile at the side of my Rocket. Whenever I looked up from my work, I could see the house gecko eating trails of ants. He wasn’t hungry. The “kitchen” was behind me, old coffee sitting on the “counter” in a silver Italian espresso maker. There was nothing in the “fridge,” a machine that must have dated from the 1960s and suffered frequent lapses for lack of electricity.
On Friday afternoons, drums outside my window announced dances or get-togethers or religious services. I’d be writing up my notes from the day, and the drums would get going, evening settling in, the smell of cooking charcoal burning, and then a rainstorm would come pounding down on us, whipping the palms and the banana trees. I loved that moment because I was inside. The ceiling was tin and thunderous. I’d get up from my chair of labor and go stand at the window, watching the rain and wind make everything dance, including the garbage, as the waters turned the dribble of the canyon into a broad river carrying mango leaf and banana refuse and plastic and glass and bones.
One evening, standing there, watching another flood go by, I said to myself, ah: the rainy season. And then I said to myself, ah: The Rainy Season. And the title was born, and thus the feeling of the entire book.
Of course, the book wasn’t about the rainy season or any particular rainy season. Its subtitle was Haiti Since Duvalier, and it was about a time of doubt and struggle in the country, during which it rained in a way that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It rained dramatically, unabashedly, violently, brilliantly, passionately. And the title seemed to express something I’d felt about Haiti: how the rains disoriented me the way the place did; because they and it were foreign to me, and not yet arranged in my mind to be known and navigable.
It always takes me time to come to a title. Martyrs’ Crossing is my novel about an emergency faced by a Palestinian toddler and his mother at a checkpoint between Jerusalem and the occupied territories. I finished it before I had a title.
The working title (there’s always a working title, or three…) was Checkpoint, but I felt that that made it sound like a thriller by Michael Crichton. Although it did have elements of a thriller, that title was too limiting and — worst sin of all for a title — promised something other than what the book delivered.
I offered my editor many possible titles for this book, titles I culled from the Old Testament (hey, I figured, it’s a book about the actual holy land). But my editor was having none of it. I said to her, “Hemingway did it.” She replied, in her tart way: “Are you Hemingway?”
Then one night my husband, who had been a reporter in the Middle East while I was writing the book, said, “How about Martyrs’ Crossing?” And I had that moment one can have, with a good title, where everything seemed to come to a stop, and it was clear that this was the title the book had been waiting for.
I tried to ignore the fact that it sounded, to my American ear, just a bit like a highway warning sign. Also: Martyr is hard to spell. Also, I hate having any punctuation in my titles. But it seemed to me to sum up the problems raised and the story told in the book.
This was in the spring of 2001. It was in the early days of Amazon ratings for books, and I used to go on to Amazon to see what the book’s number was and what people were saying about it. Then I thought, “Let’s see if it appears anywhere else on the Internet,” and I Googled the title. (Maybe I Internet Explorered it … it was early days.)
After a few references to the book, another listing appeared. I clicked on that: It was a story about the infamous Israeli Army shooting, captured by French television, of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura while in his father’s arms at a checkpoint in Gaza the Israelis called Netzarim junction — and the Palestinians called Martyrs’ Crossing. I remembered being so sad about this kid when he was killed, and feeling his connection to the boy in my novel; but I had no idea that he’d died at a crossing point that shared its name with my book. History made the title deeper, more political, and just plain better. Not that anyone knew the connection but me. Still, I knew it.
I can’t give pointers for titles of books. It doesn’t really work that way; it’s all about inspiration and a feeling for the totality and broad meaning of the book. My most recent title, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti, came to me as an inspiration. At the Monnin art gallery in Pétion-Ville, just outside Port-au-Prince, I had seen a very moving and beautiful flag of the kind used in Vodou ceremonies, a huge green sequined thing with a forest god depicted on it, waving. As I stood before this sweet, friendly little god of Vodou, I was still in the middle of reporting my book, and writing it (I tend to do both simultaneously) and standing there in front of the flag, I thought of the early reference in my book to “Fred Voodoo,” which was what British journalists used to call the Haitian man in the street, affectionately, but disparagingly too. Outsiders should stop seeing Haitians as Fred Voodoos, was one of the points in the book. The book also, I’d started to notice, had begun to take on a kind of valedictory flavor, as I wandered the rubble-strewn streets of a city I had once known so well, notebook in hand, and contemplated what my life would be, would have been, could ever be, without Haiti.
Hello, the little Haitian god seemed to be saying with his wave. And bye-bye. Farewell, Fred Voodoo. So there was the title, in a flash. He welcomed me in and pushed me away; that was Haiti for me. If you ever see the book you’ll notice that that little god is on the cover, waving to you too.
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A version of this story was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).
Meet: About the Author
Amy Wilentz is the author of four books and teaches literary journalism at the University of California–Irvine. She has won the Whiting Award in non-fiction, the PEN/ Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Award. Her 2013 memoir Farewell Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (1990) was nominated for the award in non-fiction.
Read: David Abrahamson and Alison Pelczar on Titles
Titles are no doubt a great source of stress for writers — a quick Google search will turn up pages and pages of articles offering advice on the subject. Much of the advice is conflicting, and the only general consensus seems to be how important a good title is. Titles have to sell the book by sounding good while also giving the reader an idea of what’s to come; they have to be catchy, short, and informative, all at the same time.
To make matters more complicated, it’s not always possible to know before publication how well a title will work. We can laugh now at the fact that The Great Gatsby was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg or that Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened, but we can’t know how F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Steinbeck felt about those working titles.
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, a publisher whose Little Blue Books pamphlet series sold hundreds of millions of copies, knew well the power of a good title. He would pull books from his list when their sales weren’t meeting his expectations. Then they’d go to “The Hospital” to be rejuvenated with new titles before rerelease. A few editorial assistants would brainstorm a potential list, and one of those would be tried.
The process could work quite well: Fleece of Gold sold 6,000 copies in 1925 but the following year, rereleased under the title The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, it sold 50,000 copies. Sometimes, even Haldeman-Julius’ young daughter would help; after reading the book Privateersmen, she summarized that it was about seamen and battles, so it was retitled The Battles of a Seaman.
How enticing those titles seem point to something else that can’t be predicted: how well a title will age. Eighteenth-century novel titles were short summaries in themselves, such as the full title of Daniel Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates (1719). The greater detail was necessary at a time when novels were still entering the cultural mainstream, and it would take more than a word or two to pique a reader’s curiosity.
More recent classical works often have titles derived from other works. Popular sources include Shakespeare (Brave New World; Pale Fire), the Bible (The Sun Also Rises; Absalom, Absalom!), and the works of major poets (Of Mice and Men; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Now, it’s common for works to have single-word titles — but the pressure to summarize, or least capture the essence of, the work within nevertheless remains.
Those articles online do offer a few modern suggestions to creating titles, but take any or all of the advice at your own risk. Methods range from A/B testing to random title generators (which can generate titles as inane as The Missing Twins to as nonsensical as The Teacher in the Alien).
Common title structures make something like a random title generator possible; the titles can sound real, albeit not always. And because there are no copyrights on titles, some small subgenres of fiction do see titles recycled every few years. But picking a title that truly fits takes a bit more work.