Nattering About Novel Names

Book titles! They’re important, and the best of them can be quite memorable.

Some titles say a lot about what’s in the novels, as do War and Peace and Crime and Punishment in summarizing Leo Tolstoy’s and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s respective masterpieces. Others tease you with their intriguing nature (many examples a few paragraphs below).

Titles can be funny, serious, long, short, evocative, descriptive, clever, slangy, punny, and more. They can be drawn from unforgettable phrases in the earlier works of other authors. They can just be the name of a place (as with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Henry James’ Washington Square, and many of James Michener’s novels). Or they can include the year in which the novel is set (witness George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Or the name of the protagonist, or a description of the protagonist (such as The Vagabond by Colette, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison — whose main character is invisible metaphorically rather than in an H.G. Wells-like way). Titles can even tell you the order of a book in a series — as with D is for Deadbeat, the fourth of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet mysteries.”

I finished that excellent Grafton novel late last month, and followed it with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I’ve read about a third of Jorge Amado’s book so far, and the title is of course intriguing because one is curious about who the second hubby will be. The first spouse, a charismatic/irresponsible gambler, drops dead early in the masterful/sometimes-humorous/sometimes-erotic work.

Among many other novels with intriguing titles are Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Kathy Eliscu’s Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe, Amanda Moores’ Grail Nights, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, to name just a few.

Novels with the name of the protagonist or co-protagonist comprising all or part of the title? Countless examples, including Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Herman Melville’s Pierre, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway… Titles containing a person AND place? L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables comes immediately to mind.

The aforementioned approach of using memorable phrases of past works? W. Somerset Maugham took the words Of Human Bondage from Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics. John Steinbeck’s title The Winter of Our Discontent came from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Jane Austen’s naming of Pride and Prejudice may have been inspired by those three words in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia. The ancestry of Aldous Huxley’s title The Doors of Perception was a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — with Hell the place Satan sang “Light My Fire” when learning that Huxley’s nonfiction book in turn inspired the name of The Doors rock band. (That last fact is in the Huxley chapter of my new literary-trivia book, linked to at the end of this post.) And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 created a phrase!

(Ms.) Lionel Shriver has written a book with a slangy title (So Much for That) and a punny title (Big Brother, about an overweight sibling who wasn’t born in 1984).

Then there are titles that I think are misleading or kind of boring. For instance, the titular character in Rob Roy is not the most prominently featured person in that Sir Walter Scott novel. And Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story title is rather “blah.”

The Black Tulip has a title that makes you wonder whether the novel will be a snooze to read, but Alexandre Dumas spins an exciting tale of a contest involving said flower.

What are some of your favorite or least favorite book titles, and why?

By the way, if you’re desperately looking for some laughs in these tough Trump times, I recommend two hilarious new nonfiction humor books by friends of mine — and both have excellent titles. They are Barb Best’s The Misery Manifesto: A Self-Help Parody for the Self-Absorbed and Dawn Weber’s I Love You. Now Go Away: Confessions of a Woman with a Smartphone.

My new literary-trivia book is out! Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time is described and can be purchased here.

In addition to this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.