Making a first impression through a carefully crafted title

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but would a book by any other name read as well? Could you imagine “The Great Gatsby” retaining its charms if it were named “Trimalchio” or “Under the Red, White and Blue?” Fitzgerald could’ve. He wanted to call it one of those two, or maybe even “Gold-Hatted Gatsby” or “The High-Bouncing Lover.”

I don’t think there’s anything else “The Great Gatsby” could’ve been called. This isn’t even a question of being accustomed to the title as it is; “The Great Gatsby” just works for the book. It works before, during and after you read it. And even if you never read “The Great Gatsby” the title is appealing. It’s certainly easier to bandy around than “The High-Bouncing Lover.”

The title of a book, ideally, contributes to your impression of it. A title should also tell you something of the book in question, or the story, or the poem and so on and so forth. But here we’ll stick to books.

There are an infinite number of ways to title a book, but there are a few recurrent, potent ways that you find spread out over the continuity of world literature.

One is the Character Title. Examples of this abound—it may well be the most popular titling scheme, as found in “David Copperfield,” “Emma,” “Frankenstein,” “Moby-Dick,” “Roderick Hudson,” “Silas Marner,” “Robinson Crusoe.” Bland though the titling may seem, it more often than not fits since the characters therein are meant to occupy center stage in the reader’s mind. Even Moby-Dick, who just floats around for most of the book until (literally) upstaging everyone at the very end.

Another strain building on this is the Character + Objective Title. Something along the lines of “The Rise of Silas Lapham,” “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and more recently, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” These titles take a character and place him/her on some arc or give him/her an objective. This gives you (the reader) an idea of what the book is about, however vague.

Moving away from Character titles, you start moving closer toward abstract titles—names that don’t correspond with individual characters or plot but harkens towards ideas or concepts explored between the pages.

The most popular manifestation of this, I think, is the Allusion Title. Books like “The Sound and the Fury,” “Absalom! Absalom!” “All The King’s Men,” “Things Fall Apart,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Tender is The Night” and the like have their titles taken from other works.

In part, the allusion is meant both to link a work into the body of literature as a whole, but it’s also meant to add significance to the contents of the book. A good writerly joke: There was a writer who had just finished his first novel, but couldn’t think of a good title so he reached for his copy of The Bible and turned to a page at random for inspiration.

The listings go on, the categories increasingly turn to subsets, and as we proceed it all starts fracturing into increasingly smaller divisions. And lord knows it’s all for naught if I start boring you with minutiae.

The core of this argument is the interplay between titles and all the words and thoughts that dwell behind that front. The importance of a good title—or at least a memorable one—for a book is perhaps the chief concern of the author besides actually writing the book.

For one thing, the title is an approximation, to an extent, of its contents. But more importantly, it’s the first and most direct connection to the writer’s audience. The title is the introduction, the first impression. Even if you have no idea what a book is going to be about, you have the title bouncing around your mind, spindles materializing into a web of thoughts. The title is the binding thread.

Think of this as analogous to naming your children. You’re in the hospital, and all of a sudden you’ve got this baby plopped in your lap. This baby’s got to have a name. There’s no getting around that. But how do you begin? You have to be very careful with this. You can’t just name your baby “Maximillian” or “Leicester” or “Persephone;” monocles aren’t projected to come back into season for, well, ever. And don’t be the guy/girl to name your baby “Moonwhistle” or “Alfalfa Curls.”

The only caveat to this is a child can change his/her name to reflect the contents of their personality.

Little Moonwhistle Smith can run away from home and rename herself Martha or Alexis or something. A book doesn’t have that luxury. So to any authors out there struggling for a title: good luck. Choose carefully. That book’s going to go on without you.

Did your parents consider Moonwhistle before deciding on your actual name? How important are names in defining literary works? Talk to Sean at sreichard@wisc.edu.

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