Saturday, July 29, 2017

General Rules for Unhelpful Titles

I’ve been doing a lot of research into marketing for work; how people get other people not only to know about a certain product or service, but also how they get those other people to actually desire that product or service. And, as I am wont to do, as I’ve been mulling it over I’ve been thinking about how that relates to books.

Although you really should not judge a book by its cover, the harsh reality is that we do anyway. Not just the cover art or the size or the choice of font. We judge according to the title. A good title—or at least a unique one—can make a reader pick up a book even if the actual content is subpar, whereas a poor, mundane title can bely a truly magnificent book.

That’s what the modern Publishing Industry and the strategies of marketing would have us think, anyway. But is that really the case? Do we really rely only on a title to tell us what we want about a book? Or, especially for modern readers, do we “do our research” a little deeper, taking recommendations from people we know or looking at star ratings on the internet or actually opening the book and reading not only the blurb but also maybe skim over a bit of the actual text?

I decided to look at my own bookcase to run this experiment: If I knew nothing about a book except the title, would it be enough to entice me to read it?

Conclusion #1: Proper Names Tell Me Nothing
  • Jane Eyre
  • Tom Sawyer
  • Emma
  • Peter Pan
  • Don Quixote
  • Caddie Woodlawn
  • Stuart Little
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Oliver Twist
  • Silas Marner
  • Beowulf
  • Rascal

If I didn’t already have some idea of who these people were before I started reading these books, I would have to begin reading the book in complete ignorance. Moby-Dick may be about a whale, but if there weren’t the alternate title (the full title usually printed is, helpfully, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale) I wouldn’t know that the tile refers to a sea mammal and not the narrator or protagonist.*

The same goes for occupations or ranks:
  • The Professor
  • The Little Prince
  • A Little Princess
  • The Lord of the Rings

And for place names:
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mansfield Park
  • Bleak House
  • Middlemarch

Unless it’s a place I actually know (in which case it’s probably a nonfiction or biographical work rather than a novel or short story), these places mean nothing to me until I actually find out their significance whilst reading the book itself.

Not even a combination of personal and place names really helps, although it does seem to plant the character in their setting:
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • The Count of Monte Cristo

Conclusion #2: Adding “The Adventures” or “Chronicles” or “Tales” Doesn’t Help:
Which is why I sliced off The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Oliver Twist. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories (The Adventure of the Speckled Band, for example) are just as oblique in meaning.

More examples being:
  • Any of the Beatrix Potter books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit
  • Luckily most instances of “Chronicles” which come to mind (of Narnia, of Prydain, Spiderwick, Lunar, etc.) are titles for a group of books which are individually (and therefore possibly more specifically) titled.

Some special mentions of other books that have Unhelpful Titles:
  • The Big Sleep…this book is not about taking naps. Although I would read that book too.
  • The Hobbit…Dear Tolkien: you can’t name a book after a creature you invented and expect people to know what that is until that book has become super famous—which, um, it has—but still.
  • The Silmarillion…Seriously? Tolkien! Did we not just establish this!?
  • Great Expectations…This is more a problem for today’s readers, as in Victorian times “expectations” had a little more specific connotation which is elaborated upon in this novel.
  • Most Nero Wolfe novels…The Doorbell Rang, Three at Wolfe’s Door, Some Buried Caesar, Black Mountain, Black Orchids, The Golden Spiders....Although, I will say that The Father Hunt and The Mother Hunt are pretty self-explanatory.
  • All Jack London novels. I’m looking at you, Sea-Wolfthat’snotaboutawolfeventhoughtheseaisratherextensivelyinvolved.
  • A ton of PG Wodehouse stories. Something Light, Something Fresh, Summer Lighting, Jeeves and the Song of Songs, etc. Although Laughing Gas really does have a plot that hinges on exactly what it says on the tin.
  • Charlotte’s Web...While otherwise I might be tempted to think this a pretty good title for a book about a spider, the fact that most people now free-associate “web” with “internet” now makes this book a little confusing to the upcoming generation of juvenile readers.

*This is arguable. In my opinion Ishmael isn’t the protagonist since he doesn’t serve much purpose once the action starts happening. Captain Ahab would be a good candidate, or Moby-Dick himself depending on which the reader is rooting for. But since we don’t really get much of a glimpse of Moby-Dick himself, and since even then there’s no illuminating of his perspective or thought process, I’d have to go with Ahab.

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