Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, provides a bit of advice about choosing book titles: “The point to remember is that the primary function of a title is not to provide the locus of the story, but to entice the reader.” He then offers the example of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which was originally called The Mute.
When people discover you’ve written a work of fiction, the first question they often ask is: what’s it called? (Followed immediately by: what’s it about? But I’ll save that painful subject for another post.) In my 30s, I wrote a novel I called The Music Crept by Us, after a poem by Leonard Cohen. I loved the title (as I do the poem), but saying it out loud inevitably lead to blank stares all around. Jack McClelland, who had by then sold his stake in McClelland and Stewart and set up shop as a literary agent, liked the manuscript well enough to take it on. And while perhaps the title wasn’t the sole reason for its subsequent rejection by a long succession of publishers, I’m sure it didn’t help.
I followed up The Music Crept by Us with a second novel, which I encumbered with another poetry-inspired title: The Slow Moon Climbs (from Tennyson’s Ulysses). Its death was more protracted and painful than that of its older sibling (one publisher sat on it for over a year while trying to decide whether she wanted it or not), but die it did, just the same.
In 2007 an excerpt from my novel, Rome Was Never like This, (yes, again from a poem—this time Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Junkman’s Obbligato) was shortlisted for the British Crimewriters Association Debut Dagger Award. This led to an approach from a prominent British literary agent whose final words to me, when we parted ways over differing visions for the book, were: “And, by the way, I still hate the title.”
Rome Was Never like This, after a brief incarnation as Freedom Caught the First Train Out, will be published this spring as Fools Republic, a far better title and one which, as far as I know, is without a single poetic antecedent.
The novel I’m currently writing carries the working title What We Remember, not from a poem, but from a line of Joseph Brodsky’s: “People are what we remember about them.” The book concerns a man’s search for the truth about his mother, who abandoned him and his family during their return trip from Africa to Canada when he was twelve. So I guess, contrary to Stein’s advice, the title does provide the locus of the story. But I hope, in this case, it’s also enticing. If not, I’m sure I’ll come up with something.
I wonder, is The Mute still available?