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Let’s start here: what makes a good book title? There’s no exact formula, but like a good cover, you’ll know it when you see it. The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois, A Confederacy of Dunces, Women Talking – great titles, great books. I think what makes a great book title maybe primarily is that it’s not a bad book title, and it’s a lot easier to define a bad book title. Dumb. Annoying. An ugly word. As with deciding what to eat for dinner, it’s easier to sort through the things that are wrong before we find the right ones. Here I am going to examine a few things I feel are wrong about the book titles. Maybe in the end we’ll figure out what might be right, and then we’ll solve publishing and literature in general. Shall we continue?
I don’t mind simplicity. Let’s take the title Giovanni’s Room. That’s a great title. Who is Giovanni and what is happening in his room? Why is his room so central that it is the title of the book? I find this simple and quite literal title very effective. I don’t really like certain overly descriptive or literal titles. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Aside from the apparently insensitive use of the word “hump” (1831 not very respectful if we were Victor), the title is nothing to worry about. Ok, so this book is about a person. Most books are like that. Next. The Old Man and the Sea suffers from the same problem. Okay, so this book is about a person and a substance that covers 71% of the earth. And??? Why do you think these very literal descriptions of your main character intrigue me? You give me basic.
The subcategory of this are titles consisting only of the name of their protagonist: Rebecca. But I would argue that these have their time and place. What’s more haunting than just “Carrie”? In fact, I think The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Old Man and the Sea would have benefited from using their characters’ names rather than a reductive description. Quasimodo of Notre Dame, Santiago and the sea. Now I want to know what is going on with Quasimodo and why he is “of Notre Dame” and why Santiago is like that in the sea??? It’s all about intrigue, folks!
Another thing I don’t care about in a book title is if there are spoilers. Like hello, what am I reading for? treasure island. Okay so I guess they will find treasure??? The book should be called I Wonder What’s On That Island!!! It would have sold about fifty billion copies and become an instant classic! Another example: And Then There were none. Agatha, I just can’t forgive that. Everyone loves a good killing story! But I want to at least get through the first chapter before I realize this is happening! This book should have been called How Many Will Be Left? No idea!! Let me read and find out! Last example: The winter of our dissatisfaction. Listen, John, everyone’s unhappy in the winter. It’s cold, it gets dark at 2pm and I have to hear my steam heater turning on and off every five seconds. But couldn’t you have at least let us ask if they will be satisfied or dissatisfied? We probably could have guessed it! Show, don’t tell, right?
There’s another category of book titles that I don’t think is the best, and those are titles that are just…I don’t know, je ne sais quoi…obvious? Close your eyes and imagine what sounds like the most obvious book title you can think of. The book takes you on a journey, you travel through the plot, the hero’s journey… I know! Traveling! Revolutionary Street! The street! No disrespect, these are obviously great books, but I just feel like I don’t need streets in my book titles.
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There you have it. Some of the things wrong with the book title area: too simple and literal, spoiler-like, and too obvious/containing the word “street”. I think from today’s perspective everything else is fair game. I have a feeling if you can get a strong “K” word in your title, you’re probably doing something right. Kindred, Kafka on the Shore, Killers of the Flower Moon. Ultimately, the key to a good book title, we can all agree, is that it’s not a bad book title. I hope it helps!