Searching for the Perfect Title: Pamela Newkirk on 'Spectacle' and 'Within the Veil'
A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.
The title for my 2015 book, Spectacle, came to mind early in the process of researching the story of a young African who in 1906 was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo monkey house. The title, I believed, not only captured the shocking exhibition in a world-class zoo of Ota Benga, the caged African boy, but also the ravenous public response. During the month of September 1906 nearly a quarter-million people flocked to the zoo to see Ota Benga, who was taunted and at times attacked by raucous crowds. The exhibition provoked sensationalized headlines across the country, including at the New York Times, where editors defended zoo officials against the handful of outraged critics. The spectacle set in stark relief the prevailing bigotry of the era and of the city’s leading men of science and public affairs.
However, as we neared publication my editor was unhappy with the title. She argued that it was too vague and instead proposed one that indicated that the book was about a man who was exhibited in the zoo. Among the suggestions were: Man in the Monkey House, Scandal in the Monkey House, An Unnatural Event in the Monkey House, and A Man Amongst Monkeys.
I countered that the book was not merely about the weeks Ota Benga spent at the zoo. The book explores his life and the racial attitudes embedded in science, history, and popular culture that culminated in his exploitation. I believed that the shameful episode was merely a microcosm of race during the era. For weeks we tossed around other titles and subtitles but none, to my mind, were as fitting as Spectacle. She finally relented and we agreed that a subtitle was needed to give readers a better sense of the contents. After weeks of brainstorming we agreed on “The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga,” which evoked the stranger-than-fiction story of Ota Benga’s remarkable life that went beyond his captivity at the zoo.
The working title for my first book was The Color of News, which examined how race overtly and covertly influences news coverage. The book more specifically explored the uphill battle of black journalists to integrate mainstream newsrooms and present more balanced portraits of black people. The book, based both on archival documents and interviews with more than 100 journalists, took readers behind the scenes to uncover some of the contentious newsroom debates around race and news coverage.
I opened the first chapter with a quote by W.E.B. Du Bois that read: “Leaving, then, the world of the white man, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.” I thought the quote conveyed my aim to lift the veil on newsroom operations to tell the untold story of the battles waged by black journalists to more fairly depict black life.
My agent at the time honed in on the words “within the Veil” which she said could signal that the book was a behind-the-scenes look at race in the newsroom. The full title became Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.
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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
Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (2015), her latest book, won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award. Her 2000 book, Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, won the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Media Criticism. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University and graduate degrees from Columbia University.
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.