Titles are tricky. An author may agonize over the title of his novel only to have the marketing department at a publishing house change it. The marketing department wants to insure that a title will grab the buying public, will entice them to spend their money on the book. Which is all fine and dandy, but…is a marketing department title a true reflection of the novel’s contents or just words that have done well in focus groups?
Unless a first-time novelist can persuade the marketing department or marketing agrees with him from the onset, he’ll have little choice but to accept the title given his novel by someone else. As a novelist’s books increase in sales and he gains power as a result, marketing starts to have less and less power and, therefore, say over the titles of his novels. The thing is: the novelist wants his novels to sell also, so he wants what marketing wants. But they want the same thing for different reasons. Marketing wants to sell and make money. The novelist (if he’s a True Writer) wants to sell and entertain the reading public with his stories.
One of my favorite titles is on a William Faulkner novel: The Sound and the Fury. He borrowed the phrase from Shakespeare. In MacBeth, toward the end of the play after the body count has really piled up, MacBeth has a moment of insight in which he’s contemplating death, life as a “walking shadow,” and how life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.” Faulkner’s choice of that phrase for his novel actually gives clues to the story contained in it. There’s an idiot, there’s plenty of death, and tragedy as only Faulkner could write. I would have loved to have been a fly on the office wall at Random House as Faulkner, his editor and the marketing guy talked about whether or not to keep the title, if such a meeting did take place.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje alludes to the novel’s central mystery, i.e. the identity of Hana’s patient and what his story is. Because there is a question of identity, most of the story deals in one way or another about how people define identity or live an identity, how people can put borders around identity, how misunderstandings arise over identity and the pain those misunderstandings can cause. Another example: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The title is the geographical name of a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains near where the characters live. It also represents an emotional place, a place of mind, the heart of their lives and a landmark and a destination. The climax of the story occurs on the mountain and it changes their lives forever.
I believe that the title of literary fiction tends to have more meaning to the novel’s story than a genre novel, but that’s not always the case. Science fiction authors, in my experience, title their stories with care and attention to meaning. An example: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. No, Clarke’s novel is not about children or adolescents coming of age. Instead, it’s about the interplay among three different creatures and their relative maturity in the game of survival, a coming of age story concerning adults and the loss of innocence concerning existence in the universe.
The five Perceval novels have titles that have meaning but I’ve also tried to make them intriguing to pique readers’ curiosity. The first novel, Perceval, will undergo a title change when I begin work on its next revision to Perceval’s Secret. This title more clearly says that Perceval is a person who has a secret which is a core element in the novel. The other titles, Perceval’s Shadow, Perceval in Love, Perceval’s Game, and Perceval’s Choice, consistently follow this pattern.
What does the title of a publication mean? That depends…first and foremost on the story the writer has written, followed by the author’s persuasive powers and influence, and finally the publisher’s marketing department’s power. The next time a title catches your eye, wonder…and then buy and read it.