Already, I’m intimidated, but I plunge ahead nonetheless because her subject of the moment is titles—of stories, poems, books, and portions thereof—and it’s one I wrestle with many a day of my working life.
“Titles are advertising,” she says. “Like covers and blurbs, they are trying to tell you what kind of book you’re holding, what other books it is like, and what kind of person is supposed to like it.” This seems to me to be asking quite a lot. In my own simplistic publisher’s mind, I’ve usually settled for a title that makes a potential reader want to know more about the book, rather than return it to the shelf immediately.
Then (to make her counterpoint, I assume) Gabbert cites Miranda July’s The First Bad Man—“not a bad title, but it’s the wrong title for the book.” Specifically, “it doesn’t tell you anything about the book as a whole, and worse, it sets the wrong tone—an ominous tone for a funny book that is not about bad men or men at all.” Picky picky me—much too thick to fathom how being flatly deceptive still qualifies this as “not a bad title.”
But there also are criteria on which Gabbert and I agree, such as an aversion to:
• The formulaic: What We Talk About When We Talk About [That Thing], or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About [Whatever] but Were Afraid to Ask.
• The fatally turgid: Gabbert deploringly cites Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea, but I’m left totally in awe by No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again. (Really!)
• The rhythmically sing-songy: Then We Came to the End or I Know This Much Is True. (And I share Gabbert’s fondness for spondees, such as Bleak House or White Noise.)
Being a poet, she cites with approval the poet’s gambit of stealing a title from the words that follow “because the mind likes familiarity.” When it alights on the phrase a second time, “there’s almost a subconscious ding of recognition.”
This “ding” is not to be taken lightly. The best titles are different—but not too different. The reader wants a phrase, an idea, an echo that feels comfortable but also says there’s something distinctive about this book. A title can be puzzling but not bogglingly obscure. It’s tricky.
Trends come and go. We may have outgrown the Secret Lives of phase, but I’m pretty sure negative ideas are in vogue at the moment: Everything I Never Told You, All the Light We Cannot See.
Ultimately, it’s the same for a book’s title as for the full cover surrounding it: Deciding on the one that “works” (defined as optimum satisfaction of both aesthetic and commercial criteria) is more art than science. But that’s simply saying the emotions play a larger role than the intellect does. And that’s simply saying titling a book is no different a process than choosing your “bathroom tissue”—or buying a house. Art imitates life.