The people at Merriam-Webster aren’t always known for the most electrifying discussion articles about the world of words, and yet something in their brief seems to insist they produce those articles.
Usually, the one word you might have for these pieces might be nerdish. Or geeky. Or eggheaded.
So I was delighted when a message came in from their offices that they had something I might like. “What’s In a Name?” is a collection of comments from 11 authors on their one-word book titles.
And as I read it, I realized that there really is a very distinctive impact in many one-word titles. One of the best examples I can give you on all levels is Go, the muscular Kazuki Kaneshiro novel in its English translation by Takami Nieda from Amazon Crossing. I covered it in an interview with Nieda, and, as it happens, you can get it free in the “Read the World” promotion for World Book Day right now: here’s where.
My provocation for you today is to think about this and see if you can put into words (I’ll let you have more than one) what it is about a strong one-word title that makes it what it is.
If you’d like a refresher on some singular-utterance titles:
- BookRiot produced a nice list of about 100 of them in 2017 and you’ll find it here.
- Another good list? Thanks, Goodreads.
- More? Here’s the Seattle Public Library at work.
The shortest I’ve come across might be Stephen King’s It. And he’s in the Merriam-Webster piece, not for It, but for Misery. He’s quoted saying, “With Misery, it was the name of writer Paul Sheldon’s main character (he wrote bodice-rippers about a hot chick named Misery Chastain), and the situation he found himself in as Annie Wilkes’s prisoner. So the title was pretty much a no-brainer.”
Another short one is pointed out by Merriam and her husband Webster: Malinda Lo’s Ash. “I’m not sure when I chose to name my Cinderella character Ash, but it seemed crystal clear to me that it was the only name she could have. Her story might begin in darkness, but she rises out of the ashes of her grief like a phoenix.”
In thinking of why such titles work (or don’t), I find that single words that describe an emotionally intense construct work best on me, whether they’re an adjective (Vicious) or a noun (Inspection, just out in March from Penguin Random House/Del Rey by Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box–the October 1 follow-up to which will be the one-word-titled Malorie).
Place names used as one-word titles leave me pretty cold. Heartland. Matterhorn. Edinburgh. I think they give me the feeling that somebody didn’t want to deal with the usual duties of exposition. Exception to the place-name rule: the film title Brazil.
In fact, I think Hollywood is way ahead of us on this.
Here’s IMDb with a handy list of one-word film titles. Warning (not a bad title, Warning): There are 12,325 one-word film titles in this list. After three days, we’ll send somebody out to search for you.
Now, I’ll take a stab at what I think goes into the impact of the best one-word titles, and then it’s your turn. In examples I’m using here, I’m not vouching for the quality of the book or film behind the title, I’m looking only at the title (and, as we all know, in some cases, the author or filmmaker should have stopped right there, so it goes).
I would say the strongest one-word titles do one or more of four things:
- Create a kind of profundity, deserved or not, for the word in question (Alien. Zorba. Amadeus. Solar.)
- Contain energy, whether it’s psychological, social, physical, classic, whatever–some sort of dynamic (Interstellar. Unbreakable. Insurgent. Revenge.)
- Arrive from nearby. By that, I mean they feel close to us, close to issues of the day, carrying a kind of currency that sounds like a great op-ed feels–as if someone has just, finally, summed up what we’re all thinking or feeling. (Extinction. Overruled. Disgrace, 1984.)
- And as Jeff Eugenides says in the Merriam-Webster piece about Middlesex, “A good title tells you what the book’s about. It reminds you, when you lose heart, why you started writing it in the first place.” I’d just add that this works for a reader, too. When you lose your way trying to get through something, it can really help to have an efficient handle to grab onto.
In the Merriam-Webster piece, Jeff Vandermeer says, “Annihilation came to me as a title mysteriously—I cannot tell you what my subconscious was up to. But then my conscious mind thought about it and realized the novel was about a giving up of the self to something new.”
Chuck Wendig tells M-W: “Wanderers was not always the book’s name. Originally it was Exeunt — which is a lovely-sounding title that nobody would ever be able to pronounce or spell, which, ha ha, is not the best way to sell a book, probably. And so came the search to find another title, and given that the book begins with an epidemic of sleepwalkers walking across the country to some unknown purpose, the line ‘Not all who wander are lost’ from Tolkien had a certain critical resonance, and given the epic nature of the story, it felt apt to use Wanderers as the title.”
And Lauren Elkin gives M-W a run for its money with a nice definition: “Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities. … I called my book about the liberating power of walking in cities Flâneuse because I wanted to queer the flâneur, so to speak, with a change of gender reclaiming the concept of urban idling from a normative mythologized figure into one of rebellion and difference.”
And before I turn this over to you, I’ll save you the trouble–no extra charge.
Collusion is already in the works, scheduled to be released April 30 by HarperCollins’ Broadside Books. It’s described as a “rollicking tale of high-stakes international intrigue—the first book in a contemporary series filled with adventure, betrayal, and politics, that captures the tensions and divides of America and the world today.” Guess who. Newt Gingrich, with Pete Earley.
Obstruction is a book by Nick Salvato (Duke University Press, 2016)–and hey, I might have to read this. “Can a bout of laziness or a digressive spell actually open up paths to creativity and unexpected insights? In Obstruction Nick Salvato suggests that for those engaged in scholarly pursuits laziness, digressiveness, and related experiences can be paradoxically generative.”
Now you. One-word titles. Do they work? Do they not? Why? Why not? Do you use them? Do you wish you did? Do you wish everybody would stop? Are you glad this column is over? Go.
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