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Searching for the Perfect Title: Madeleine Blais on 'The Heart Is an Instrument' and 'Uphill Walkers'
A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.
In writing, everything counts, and even something as inherently short and seemingly inconsequential as a title requires heavy lifting. It is often the final order of business, finding a title that works, ideally on more than one level, functioning as a metaphor and a mini poem. Titles are the first selling tool for a book and, as such, the publisher retains veto power, often just as well because authors are sometimes too close to the material to pick a snappy title on their own. The original title for Anita Shreve’s novel The Weight of Water was the less lilting Silence at Smuttynose.
Examples of titles that work, from fiction and memoir, include A Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, thanks to their sass and their originality. Reading Lolita in Tehran shakes up the gene pool of our expectations. Variations have followed, such as Lipstick Jihad and The Kabul Beauty School. Running With Scissors has brilliant generic quality; it applies to any childhood narrative filled with risk and danger. Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, works on three levels, describing the author when she was drunk, describing her as she sought spiritual insight, and as shorthand for the business at hand: literature.
Often, one well-chosen word can do the trick. Atonement. Waiting. Prep. Monkeys. Lucky. Saturday.
How about Jaws? Peter Benchley had been mulling the idea of a shark terrorizing a resort community for years, carrying in his wallet a newspaper clipping about a 4,500-pound shark that had been captured off the coast of Long Island in 1964 to prove to any potential publishers that the story was not so preposterous: It had an antecedent in the world of fact. He kept a running list of possible titles, each more clunky than the next, including The Edge of Gloom, Leviathan Rising, and Tiburon. He also envisioned Jaws of … Despair, Anguish, Terror (take your pick), shortening it at the last minute to the one-word wonder by which the book (and the movie) became world famous.
Among my favorite student-generated titles is that of a memoir written by a young man about the struggle to acknowledge his sexual orientation. For years he struggled to articulate out loud the simple sentence, “Mom, I am gay,” feeling that until he did he could not move forward in his life. His title: Four Words. Another title, about a father who was always on his way out the door: Going, Going, Gone. An older returning student wrote about how as a child in the sixties in an African-American community in Boston, hers was the only family to go on camping trips. Everyone else she knew traveled by train or by car to see relations in the South or in Chicago or Harlem, but her father loved his pop-up camper and all the equipment it entailed and for weeks before they left each summer, he fussed over his lanterns and his mess kits and his two-burner grill stove, much to the amusement of neighbors who took borrowed pleasure in the tableau and saw his enthusiasm as an annual marker in their lives as well as his. Every year when the family set forth, with fewer and fewer black people in sight until finally there were none, the student remembered being befuddled by the road signs as she traveled north to New Hampshire, especially one sign in particular.
Why did her father keep speeding by it? Why didn’t he get in trouble? The title of her memoir: No Passing.
As for my books, the title of my collection of journalism, The Heart Is an Instrument, came from one of my subjects, Tennessee Williams, who said to me during a series of interviews over three days in Key West in February of 1979:
I used to be kind, gentle. Now I hear terrible things, and I don’t care. Oh, objectively, I care, but I can’t feel anything. Here’s a story. I was in California recently and a friend of mine had a stroke. He is paralyzed on the right side and on the left side and he has brain cancer. Someone asked me how he was doing and I explained all this and the person said, “But otherwise is he all right?” I said, “What do you want? A coroner’s report?” I never used to react harshly, but I feel continually assaulted by tragedy. I can’t go past the fact of the tragedy; I cannot comprehend these things emotionally. I cannot understand my friend who is sick in California and who loved life so much he is willing to live it on any terms.
Sometimes I dream about getting away from things, recovering myself from the continual shocks. People are dying all around you and I feel almost anesthetized, feel like a zombie. I fear an induration, and the heart is, after all, part of your instrument as a writer. If your heart fails you, you begin to write cynically, harshly. I would like to get away to some quiet place with some nice person and recover my goodness.
The title In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle was also inspired by a writer, Emily Dickinson, the poet who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, the setting of the high school basketball team whose championship season I covered. Her famous poem claims “hope is the thing with feathers,” though Woody Allen has a joke about that thing with feathers is his nephew in Zurich who thinks he is a bird. I, obviously, had my own definition.
For Uphill Walkers, a family memoir, I had two goals — to avoid body parts (“heart,” “muscle”) and to be less verbose. As children, we walked to school (not very far, definitely wearing shoes). We were designated, on the way home, as part of the uphill patrol. Given my family’s slow trudge upward after receiving a devastating blow (my father died suddenly leaving my mother with five children, eight and under and one on the way), the trajectory seemed to mirror our fate. In our hometown we were the mysterious Other — the frequent target of whispered conjecture, “How do they manage, after all?”
My most recent memoir is about the loss of a beloved summerhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, hardly the stuff of tragedy. And yet when it came time to part with this ramshackle dwelling surrounded by water (“blue gold” in realtor’s parlance) I was filled with that deluge of mixed emotions that signals something worth writing about. The book, published on July 4th, 2017, contains the following passage:
The new owners could of course imagine their own future happiness, but they could not see, and therefore could not appreciate, the human history preceding the purchase, all the lives that grazed ours and the ones that truly intersected, the noisy arrivals and departures, the arguments and the recipes, the ghosts and the guests, crabs caught and birthdays celebrated, clams shucked, towels shaken, lures assembled, bonfires lit, the dogs we indulged, the ticks we cursed, the pies we consumed, and, through it all, both close by and in the distance, the moving waters (as a poet put it) at their priest-like task. They could not see the depth of the life lived here during the summer for all those years.
The title, To the New Owners, comes from that excerpt. I must confess, to my amazement: Everyone connected to publishing who hears the title claims to love it. Why? I don’t know. I do know that my son said if he had written the book it would have been called Not for Sale and the entire text would have consisted of two words, “The end.”
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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
Madeleine Blais is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, where she teaches memoir, journalism literature, and non-fiction writing. Her 1995 book, In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in non-fiction. She is also the author of The Heart Is an Instrument: Portraits in Journalism (1992), and Uphill Walkers: Memoir of a
Family (2001). She holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of New Rochelle (1969) and a master’s from the School of Journalism at Columbia University (1970).
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.