What’s in a name?
It had to come to this. The working title of a novel I am trying to complete was never going to work. Too obscure and doesn’t catch the eye, nor match the genre; it’s not obvious how to pronounce it, and has other problems besides. What to do?
Book name generators (e.g. booktitlegenerator.com) are fun and can help get ideas going, but no more than that. And then there is the Lulu title scorer, applying a ‘scientific’ algorithm to rate out of 100 your book’s chances of selling, based on its title alone. None of the options on my shortlist scored over 45 per cent, alas – although it’s some comfort to see the despised working title came out with just 26.3 per cent. At least I’m improving!
Lulu title scorer considers elements of length, grammatical construction, use of names, and whether the title is literal or figurative. It is, of course, unable to give a subjective view, such as consideration of the genre in which the novel is written (and obviously does not claim to provide the latter). I also wonder if it isn’t a bit outdated. The books that informed the scorer were from a 2005 study, taking books that were New York Times bestseller toppers from 1955 and 2004.
Do tastes in these matters change, and are there fashions for fiction titles? I’ve looked as some successful (or at least commonly used) approaches below to see if this helps me get some pointers.
The Fruitless Quest of Ms L. Rose Paley
Going against the common advice to avoid long titles, there seems to have been a trend in recent years for books with the lengthy structure as follows:
The (definite article) + adjective + noun + of (preposition) + name (proper noun/s).
Early examples were James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939) and Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne published in the 1950s – though I guess there was also Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1886.
Then a proliferation of the same title structure this century. Examples include those below:
Rachel Joyce The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Joyce’s companion work The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
Jonathan Coe The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
Stephanie Mayer The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner
Kate diCamillo The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane… And others.
Doubling up adjectives is Leslye Walton with The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.
There is a quaint, old-fashioned feel to the structure of these titles, which is presumably deliberate, perhaps useful for novels set in the past. Sometimes this is underscored by use of antiquated names and of Miss, Mr, etc., also seen in titles that don’t quite follow the same formula (no adjective), such as Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim, about a shy librarian, which echoes Muriel Spark’s classic, 1930s-set The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, set in Victorian England, and one of Ellis Peter’s Cadfael mysteries The Confessions of Brother Haluin, with a 12th-century setting. Greedily fitting in two names, and lots more besides, is Andrew O’Hagan with The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, set in the 1960s.
All in all then, not a useful model for my contemporary work. And incidentally, the Lulu title scorer doesn’t appear much to approve of the above structures. It does seem more open to names as titles though (given plus family name) – my own name as a book title scored a not-dreadful 45.6%! Okay, I really must stop playing with that thing now.
The Secret Guild for Confounded Writers
There appears to have been a vogue for similarly lengthy titles featuring ‘society’, ‘club’, ‘group’, etc. across fiction and non-fiction, possibly stemming from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (published 1980), or more likely Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989). Commercially successful recent examples include The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler and The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows. This is also found in non-fiction, particularly perhaps travel memoir, such as Chris Stewart’s The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society (Spain) and The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi (Italy).
This enticing device of making the reader feel invited into a special clique often appears in popular and genre fiction, particularly in romance, “women’s fiction”, and cozy mysteries, signifying a light read. A quick glance on Amazon shows up a load of examples – Lucy’s Little Village Book Club by Emma Davies; Natalia’s Secret Spinster’s Society by Charlotte Stone (romance); Linda Evans Shepherd’s The Potluck Club, The Cotswolds Cookery Club series by Alice Ross, and Mary Kay Andrews’ The High Tide Club (humour/women’s fiction); The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams (mystery), and so on. The quirkier the references the better, it appears.
On similar lines, fictional ‘Secret Diaries of’ continue to pop up, thirty-five years after Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole. Well the ‘secret’ part is relevant to my book, but mine is not one of the above genres.
Spanked by an Alpha Billionaire
Then what about erotic romance, specifically? Little is to be learnt from the current top twenty (paid) titles on Amazon today (not least because it’s a stupidly tiny sample, I admit). Only two appear to be names, including E.L. James’s ubiquitous Grey. True they are all short – between one and five words and only two of them more than three words long, but then the series names and sub-genres are often stuffed into sub-titles. Only one title mentions ‘love’ and only one ‘sex’, directly. Verbs are relatively popular, including two imperative forms (seduce me / stalk me)… But no real patterns.
I guess using women’s names in titles was once fairly popular in erotic ‘literary’ fiction, with de Sade’s Justine; Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Then there’s Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley (and her Lover); Pauline Réage’s mysterious ‘O’ and her story. It’s a tradition continued by, for example, Molly Weatherfield’s S/M novel Carrie’s Story.
Much current popular erotica will, very sensibly for the purposes of readers’ searches and sales, reference the sub-genre in the title – Alpha, Billionaire, Submissive, and so on. However, my writing doesn’t align with a particular sub-genre, even though it does need to be called something that signals the type of book. So none of this gets my search any further.
Your Body will Haunt Mine
What about using a quote from another, loftier work? Is that too pretentious, or would it signal a more ‘literary’ content? Depends on the quote chosen and on its length, I think. With a preference to keep it short. (The one above is from an Adrienne Rich poem, by the way).
The afore-mentioned A Confederacy of Dunces is borrowed from Jonathan Swift, for instance. And it’s not a recent practice – consider Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) taken from Gray’s Elegy. It’s not just literary fiction, but seems popular in mystery and detective novels, too, such as Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Shakespeare) and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (Tennyson); PD James’s Cover Her Face (John Webster) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (T.S. Elliot); Dorothy L. Sayer’s Have his Carcass (Homer)…
Whether genre fiction or not, these examples are highly regarded works. Would I dare be so bold as to use a bookish quotation for such a ‘low’ form as erotic romance? Not sure. I did borrow chapter titles for a previous book from Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, and think that was fairly subtle, as well as relevant to the time setting…
And so the search continues, troubled by the knowledge that it does indeed matter. If people are not going to judge your book by the cover, they certainly will by its title.
Lulu Title Scorer http://www.lulu.com/titlescorer/index.php
Computer Model Names Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder as “The Perfect Title” for a Best-Seller http://www.lulu.com/static/pr/12_15_05.php retrieved 09 May 2018.
Adrienne Rich “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” from Twenty-one Love Poems, 1976.
Image from Stocksnap, https://stocksnap.io/photo/CQI990NSLK