Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Titling Strategies

I have long been interested in titles, their fashions over time, their evolving functions. (Early novel titles were simply labels, the name of the protagonist plus a descriptive subtitle. This persisted through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, when other fashions gained currency.) Strategies for giving a story collection its title are especially interesting, since the obvious strategy (name the book after the most famous story in it, or at least the one with the most memorable title) is so overwhelmingly popular that any others are worth studying.

James Tiptree always gave her collections offbeat titles of their own. Gene Wolfe goes for witty titles, and Harlan Ellison often comes up with striking titles for his collections. Maureen McHugh has titled her forthcoming collection Mothers and Other Monsters, which is more than slightly in-your-face. (Much more interesting than "The Lincoln Train and Other Stories," which one publisher wanted to call it.)

Last week I came across two striking collection title strategies in successive days. The first was Jenny and the Jaws of Life, a collection by Jincy Willett that I have read good things about. It isn't, on its face, a tremendously remarkable title, until you look at the table of contents and realize that there is no title story. Instead there are two: the final stories in the volume are "Jenny" and "The Jaws of Life." I have never seen a collection title take the form "A and B," when the volume comprised more than just those two works.

The next day I came across 13 Stories by Stephen Dixon, I writer I have long intended to try. Again, not a very striking title, until you turn to the Table of Contents. The first story is called "13 Stories" -- meaning that it is a volume with a title story, while seeming to be one that follows the strategy of Salinger's Nine Stories and Faulkner's These Thirteen. (I counted the number of stories in the book: fourteen. He does not intend an ambiguous reading!)

Dixon is being sneaky, but Willett's title seems bewildering. Both strategies are much more interesting than what you see with, say, Fire Watch and Other Stories.

21 Comments:

Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

I have a manuscript doing the rounds with the title More Poems About Ants & Architecture with, yes, three sections called "Ants," "And," and "Achitecture." It's an entirely accurate description, even for a first collection, yet I'm getting more dissatisfied with it. But I can't think of anything else -- finding that was hard enough.

---L.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I love the idea of a section called 'And'.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

That's the romances. Pygmalion gets married and an AI has an affair in intergalactic space, plus the occasional love poem.

---L.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Smith said...

I always liked And Other Stories by John O'Hara, which probably seemed cleverer in 1968 than it would today.

More recently, I like the title of Ted Chiang's collection which includes "The Story of Your Life," Stories of Your Life. Actually, I would like it more if that were indeed the title, because Stories of Your Life and Others isn't quite as effective for me.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

And there's The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Which someone had to bring up.

---L.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Giving a collection a title similar but crucially different from one of the stories (as in the Chang) is another interesting strategy. Another is a collection that takes its title from a line or phrase in one of its stories. I think Harlan Ellison did that once.

Robert Graves once called a (tiny, limited edition) collection THE MORE DESERVING CASES, which comprised eighteen poems he had not included in earlier collections, but was willing to republish in this manner.

I am putting a collection together, and should come up with something more interesting than THE WEIGHING OF AYRE AND OTHER STORIES.

5:53 AM  
Anonymous Geoffrey A. Landis said...

On the subject of "titles, their fashions over time, their evolving functions," did you read the essay in the NYT Book Review about subtitles, and their fashions over time?

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