What’s in a Title?

I spent some of this autumn reading slush for one of the big fantasy ‘zines. It was overall a great experience.  I really enjoyed reading the stories, both because I like stories and also because it was interesting to be “on the other side” for once. To see the non-ending surge of stories and to be delighted when something great came up.

A lot of stories–most of them–were good, (surprisingly so) but most were not specifically good for the market they were intended. Which is a note most writers have gotten. Kind of frustrating on both sides, to have written a good story with no home, and likewise owning a home that must reject most of the good stories that approach it.

At any rate, I learned a bit and, as I say, it was immensely enjoyable. I may blog a few times about this but I’m here today to talk about Titles.

You can’t judge a book by the cover, or at least if you do you are kind of a jerk. Covers don’t come from the author, after all, and are usually made by marketing teams and artists who haven’t even read the book. But the title is an important part of the author’s vision and you can totally judge a book or story by the title.

In reading the 150+ stories , a few kind of Title categories emerged for me.  (All titles listed are ones I made up and none are even based on actual stories I read.)

1.   Very common were the one word summary of the plot or setting. Things like:

The zoo, Smugglers, Darkness, Forbidden, Grounding

I think this impulse comes from the film world, where blandly acceptable names have become the norm. Troy, John Carter, Avatar. Etc. I personally don’t much like this and to me it sounds like a case where the author is stuck for a name and just kind of picks something.
2.Also common, though slightly less so, were the Lyrical Titles. Things like:
Flight of the Tiger Lilies, The Emerald Gemstone of Xavier Mcdaniel, One Night of Resonance 
I do tend to enjoy these titles the most. But they also promise the most polished story. There is a slight literary burden to a title like this. (This is from my perspective as a reader, of course.)
3. The third most common were the Quirky titles. These are often quite similar to the lyrical titles but with more dissonance or strangeness.
The Funny Little Goblin who loved Burritos, My Favorite Koi, House of Nope, The Glimmering Cheerleader.
The expectation set with a title like this is something approaching bizzaro which is perhaps the most burdensome.
There are plenty of other kind of titles of course, but those were the ones I encountered the most.  Now, the tone of the title and the actual story don’t have to match.  One of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever read is simply called Catskin. But as I read stories I began to aware of a slight expectation on my part as to the kind of story I would get.

None of the stories I recommended had particularly good titles. Some were about as boring as possible. (ie: The Dragon). If there was a bias, it wasn’t a big one.

But it got me thinking about titles, and what they say about the story they accompany. How important do you think a title is?



2 thoughts on “What’s in a Title?

  1. I’m surprised to hear that a lot of the stories submitted were surprisingly good… I’ve never heard that before!

    As far as titles, I think it depends a lot on the story. A simple title can work for a very florid, dense story, where a lyrical title can often work well for something colder and more dark or emotionally severe (I’m thinking about Tiptree here). I like the simple titles, as we’ve discussed, but I think of the books and stories that stick out from my earlier (pre-serious-writing) reading experiences, and a lot of lyrical or lyrical/quirky titles stick out: The Great and Secret Show (Clive Barker) was a big one. Also Patricia Anthony’s Brother Termite, which is tricky: the title looks short and weird at the start, and then takes on a much different resonance as you read the book. And I think James Morrow’s books as quirky, but not in a bizarro way so much as in a way that announces a theological satire: Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, Eternal Footman, Only Begotten Daughter, This Is the Way the World Ends… they’re all great satires of Western (Judeo-Christian) religious beliefs and cosmology.

    I guess that satirical category might also include something like Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, though it could easily fit into another category, too: the overtly political. (Her nonfiction books are even more overtly political, for example How to Suppress Women’s Writing and What Are We Fighting For?)

    But you were talking about short stories. I haven’t read the Link, by the way. I seem to be in the minority who don’t really respond to her work, and it’s only partly a case of the people who talked her up to me poisoning the well by ultimately being jerks. It’s also just something about her work I don’t respond to the way so many writers I know do. Hmmm. Something else I could pick your brain about sometime, since you’re quite different from the majority of Link’s biggest fans I’ve known.

    • Well there were plenty of poorly written stories too, it’s just that after hearing so many slush horror stories I was happy to see it wasn’t all of them.

      There are a lot of factors that go into titles and I tend to skew toward creative, resonant ones. The same things that I look for in fiction actually. But it’s not make-or-break. I love Mieville’s The Scar but the title is fairly terrible. On the other hand, Greene’s titles “The Third Man” “The Quiet American” were all fairly simple but somehow I really like them.

      I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I don’t love every Link story, but she has carved out such a nice niche between the bizarro and the literary worlds that when it works, it really works for me.

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