Monday, June 1, 2009

That Which We Call A Rose

What’s in a name? Or, more accurately, what’s in a title?

What is there about certain words or combination of words that makes you want to see a certain movie, read a certain story or pick up a certain book? (Leaving out the notions of author/actor/ director identification).

A few years ago, an author that I am passingly familiar with once told me that his agent had suggested that the words ‘stone’ and ‘sword’ had a particular resonance with readers – as such, for all that time, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a story called ‘The Stone Sword’ just to find out if it’s true (the main problem with that, of course, is that the very notion of a stone sword is rather silly) and, by the same logic, the greatest title of any book or film ever is The Sword In The Stone.

But what exactly draws a potential reader or viewer (or listener for that matter – as a much younger man I used to buy albums by bands I’d never heard of solely on the basis of whether or not I liked the name, believing – often correctly – that if they had enough imagination to give themselves a decent, imagination catching moniker then this might translate into the music as well).

One of finest titles of all time has to be ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the very positioning of the words strikes like a flip horrorshow boot, but in many ways it’s such a random seeming sequence of sounds that it really shouldn’t work. Of course, once you get into the novel you being to understand that the title works on many, many different levels and is very far from being random.

They say that with any meal the first bite is with the eye, and so it goes with fiction. Even the cover of a book isn’t really as important as the title, particularly given the way that books are displayed in both bookshops and libraries, and the title is very often the first thing that a potential reader sees.

So how do you capture their attention? Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d be churning out catchy-titled books by the score. Personal favourites of mine both in cinema and literature include:

Night of the Living Dead
Crabs on the Rampage
Eat Them Alive
Django the Bastard
Frankenstein, prisoner of Dracula
Night of the Bloody Apes
Varney the Vampire
Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (see also, Go Kill and Come Back)
2000 Maniacs

Or, to be a little bit more subtle about it…

Earth Abides
To The Lighthouse
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich
Time Out of Joint
Vermillion Sands
The Bell Jar
The Less Deceived
Deadhouse Gates

With some of the more obvious titles you should know exactly what to expect – a novel entitled Eat Them Alive, for instance, is unlikely to be a romantic comedy set amongst the bright young things of 1930’s London (or maybe not). But with such oblique titles as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich (Philip K. Dick) or Vermillion Sands (JG Ballard) or Neuromancer (Willilam Gibson) the attraction is in the very oblique nature of the titles, titles that promise something different, something special.

William Shakespeare once wrote (in Romeo and Juliet) ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ but would a novel such as Gibson’s ground-breaking Neuromancer have the same resonance if it had been called ‘The Tale of the Silicon Cowboy’? Or, indeed, would George Romero’s world-shattering horror been the same if it had gone with the original title of Night of Anubis?

Probably not, which is why titles are so important. They are a gateway for the reader, albeit a small one, one which captures them from the beginning and makes them want to explore this new fictional world.

Now, where did I put that first draft of The Stone Sword?

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