Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Importance of Titles

When it comes to works of fiction, titles are very important to me. I like evocative, playful, strange titles. I like titles that make me wonder, "what can that story possibly be about?" I like titles that are one-line poems, that are genes that control the growth of the story, titles that already contain in potential everything that can possibly happen in the text that follows but that simultaneously preserve the mystery wholly intact. Josef Nesvadba was a master of these kinds of titles. 'Expedition in the Opposite Direction' and 'Inventor of His Own Undoing', for instance.

A title should be lyrical, offbeat, original. It should have a magical quality. It doesn't have to be elaborate, but I tend to prefer those kinds. What I absolutely DON'T like, except in a few special cases, are simple titles, one-word titles, plain titles, titles that give away nothing and conceal nothing because they are essentially nothing, mere formalities or conventions. The worst kinds of titles are utterly unmemorable and generate no tingle in the soul. They are supposed to be "punchy" but in fact are really just limp. Patrick Süskind's Perfume may well be a superb novel, but the title is dreadful.

My top ten candidates for best title for a work of fiction are as follows:

The Well at the World's End -- William Morris
Aberration of Starlight -- Gilbert Sorrentino
The City in the Autumn Stars -- Michael Moorcock
The Inner Side of the Wind -- Milorad Pavić
Froth on the Daydream -- Boris Vian
Dwellers in the Mirage -- Abraham Merritt
Malign Fiesta -- Wyndham Lewis
Half Past Human -- T. J. Bass
The Dark Light Years -- Brian Aldiss
Landscape Painted with Tea -- Milorad Pavić

Although it's somewhat reprehensible to do so, I feel compelled to stake my own claim to being pretty nifty with titles... I try hard to generate the types of titles that I most admire in other authors. Here's a very short selection of my favourites among my own titles: 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Night's Dream', 'Occam's Beard', 'Abaddon in Abydos', 'Pepper on the Ginger Star', 'An Awfully Bubonic Adventure', 'My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand', 'The Once and Future Peasant', 'Doom it Heavenwards', 'This Werewolf Prefers Muesli', 'The Infringing Lanterns', 'Ondes Martenot on my Pillow', 'Dynamiting the Honeybun', 'The Biscuit Viziers of the Tongue Sultan', 'Caterpillar the Hun', 'My Bearable Smugness', 'The Curious Cabinet of the Fortunate Rabbit', 'Moonmoths, Umbrellas and Oranges', 'When the Tide Comes In, Belinda Puts Out', 'The Heat Death of Mr Universe'.

Anyway, that's my view on the topic. And it's one I'm entitled to!


  1. I don't like titles that are simply the name of the protagonist, unless it's a very interesting name (e.g. Titus Groan). I especially hate it in movie titles.

  2. Nothing by Philip K Dick - Flow my tears the policeman said? Do Androids dream of electric sheep? The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch?

  3. Good point, Debster. You're right. PKD's titles are cool as anything!

    Burl: I couldn't agree more. In my local library the novel *Billy LIar* by Keith Waterhouse was listed as a novel entitled *Keith Waterhouse* by the writer Billy Liar... Ho hum! Good book though!