I’m not the best guy to offer advice on titles, so I won’t. Most of my titles are single-word descriptive titles: Senator is about a senator; Pontiff is about a pontiff. Shorter is, I think, better than longer, but then again, I really like the title The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The problem with shorter titles is that they can tend to mislead. Pontiff is about more than a pontiff; Summit is about more than a summit. But, when combined with the cover, they do the trick.
Titles get easier if the book is part of a series, like A is for Alibi. Funny books should have funny titles. The best title I’ve ever been involved with is Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies by the great Craig Shaw Gardner. I recall a good bit of discussion about just what adjective should be applied to those bunnies. Having arrived at fluffy, I can’t imagine what other words could possibly have been considered.
Titles serve two purposes. The obvious purpose is to make a reader want to buy the book (or read the story, or click on the blog post). Like the cover, they’re part of the way you market the thing. Who wouldn’t want to read a book called Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies? (Well, if that’s not the kind of book you want to read, the title will do a great job of steering you away from it.)
But titles are also part of the aesthetic experience of the text, if I can get high-falutin’ for a minute. The title Gravity’s Rainbow means nothing by itself; its significance grows out of the novel to which it’s attached. Same with Ulysses. Same with A Canticle for Leibowitz. You don’t come up with titles like that to sell books. You come up with them because they grow organically out of the story you’re telling.
This brings us to Dover Beach, which is going to show up as an ebook before very long. The title was suggested by my editor at Bantam, and I loved it. The novel is about love and loyalty in a grim world after a limited nuclear war, and I liked the way the title brought out the connections with the themes of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem.
Which is to say, the title works really well in the “part of the aesthetic experience” department. But Dover Beach was a mass-market science fiction paperback. The title also needed to move product, as they say. And that product didn’t move–at least, not compared to its predecessor Replica. I think the title must have had something to do with it. If the average science fiction reader read Arnold’s poem at all, it was probably because he was forced to in sophomore English class, and who wants to be reminded of sophomore English class?
For good or ill, the title is Dover Beach, and I’m sticking with it.
Here is the last stanza of “Dover Beach”, which is still moving a hundred and fifty years after first publication:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
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