One afternoon some years ago I was driving through the spring countryside with my 90 year-old mother when she announced that she had just finished reading my new novel, The Birdcatcher.
That was no mean feat, given that she was already going blind and could only read with a small magnifier and her face almost touching the page. Anyway, I said that I was glad that she was able to read it, then she said:
“Why didn’t you call it something that would make people want to read it?”
Well, why didn’t I? ‘The Birdcatcher’ is a perfectly good title if you are John Grisham or Margaret Atwood, but for a book by an unknown, self-published writer I admit that it does nothing to solve the problem identified by my mother.
I’ve been investigating this problem for some time now. Surprisingly, I’ve found that weak titles are everywhere in contemporary fiction. Look at this list I made up today from a display of new novels in the entrance of the Toronto Public Library:
Conviction – by Denise Minh
Campusland – by Scott Johnson
The Name of All Things – by Jenn lyons
The Tower of Songs – by Casey Barrett
Island – by Johanna Skibsrud
The Dog I Loved – by Susan Wilson
Bina – by Anakana Scofield
Before the Devil Fell – by Neil Olson
There Has to Be a Knife – by Adman Khan
You’ll Never See Me Again – by Lesley Pearse
The Birthday Girl – by Melissa De La Cruz
At Death’s Door – Sherrilyn Kenyon
The Worst Kind of Want – by Liska Jacobs
Window on the Bay – by Debbie Macomber
The Blessed Girl – by Angela Makholwa
I Do Love You Still – by Mary B. Morrison
The Dragon Republic – by R. F. Kuang
The Perfect Fraud– by Ellen Lacorte
The Orphan’s Song – by Lauren Kate
Right After the Weather – by Carol Anshaw
A Nearly Normal Family – by M. T. Edvardsson
The Sum Shadows – by Eric Van Lustbader
The First Mistake – by Sandie Jones
Copperhead – by Alexi Zentner
Chimes of a Lost Cathedral – by Janet Fitch
Man’s 4th Best Hospital – Samuel Shem
The Need – by Helen Phillips
The Ventriloquists – E. R. Ramzipoor
The Ditch – by Herman Koch
My apologies for the length of the list, but it would have been 50% longer if I had included the novels on the other side of this display.
Leaving aside the few that produce a twinge of emotion (like The Dog I Loved), those that simply sound nice (Chimes of a Lost Cathedral), or those that would work if they weren’t based on cliches (like At Death’s Door), and confining ourselves to those that, following my mother’s criteria, make us want to read the book, or at least make us pick it up to check it out, I find only one book here that does that for me – Man’s 4th Best Hospital.
Why? I think the title produces a question in me. Something vague like, ‘what is this?’ I want to see the answer.
That most titles are poor is remarkable, given how important a title obviously is. Is there something about titles that makes them so difficult? Well, if you look at non-fiction there are magnificent titles all over the place. I won’t distract us here with examples.
As suggested earlier, some writers are just so popular that it doesn’t matter what title their books carry. John Grisham titles like The Client or The Firm are uninspiring, but the books were automatically bestsellers, partly because of his name and partly, of course, because they are good books. You can count on that with Grisham.
If Grisham or Stephen King had written The Ditch, that book would be on its way to riches. Instead it has only a modest Amazon kindle rating today of 546,964, a ranking area shared by thousands of novels (my book The Birdatcher, with no commercial publisher backing it, is 547,904).
King’s famous novels – Carrie ( kindle # 25,184) or The Shining (kindle # 986) for example, have ordinary titles yet they are still selling. However, King did hit on one good title:
Anyone who was alive in 1963 and old enough to know what was going on, knows that this was the date of JFK’s assassination. That date is numinous, pregnant still with the shock and sadness felt that day across the world.
The story in 11/22/1963 may be the best time travel story I have ever read, another reason for its kindle ranking – 14,889. Using a date for a title was innovative. I’m a little surprised that no one else, as far as I know, has used a date since, but one of the new novels I’m currently working on, also a time travel story, already has a title of that kind firmly in place.
But, you might ask, what is the best title? What would a perfect title look like? Well, a couple of months ago I walked into the library, looked at those same shelves and I was stunned by this one:
A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World
I picked up this 2019 novel (kindle rank # 10,476) by Scottish writer C. A. Fletcher, found myself drawn in by the first page and took it home.
Why is it a good title? It has two aspects – a boy and a dog is a timeless pairing that never loses its attraction. The ‘End of the World’ is a shocking statement, that is accompanied by multiple questions marks. What kind of an end? The end of civilization? The end of the planet? The fact that a boy and his dog will be there clinches it.
Although I’m tired of post-apocalyptic SF, I couldn’t resist that title. The story itself is electrifying, all the way through, fulfilling the title in spades. There are two dogs, not just one, brother and sister, the latter stolen, precipitating the search for her that becomes an odyssey across this strange future. Fletcher’s clear spare prose is perfect and the story is unforgettable.
But it all starts with that title.