Arifa Akbar: Does a book make its title or the other way around?


Remember the good old days when titles of novels were nothing more than, well, titles, rather than marketing manoeuvres? Wuthering Heights denoted the place where the book was set. The Canterbury Tales were tales told by pilgrims on the way to – yes – Canterbury. Crime and Punishment was about just that. Madame Bovary was the doomed titular figure on which the tragedy was based. King Lear, Hamlet – same deal.

When did they begin to get so fanciful, so self-aware? Maybe Jane Austen kicked it off with her clever, cunning titles that pulled in the curious reader with their tongue-tripping alliterations. Nowadays, the title is serious business for the marketing bods. There are protracted round-table meetings, I'm told, and sometimes heated discussion when a book comes in with a title that won't do it any favours at all, or so the team feels. Decoded, a book "coming in" this way means that the author has lovingly named his or her book, written it under given name, but now is being challenged by the publishing team who feel that the title won't grab the reader by the throat in those (sometimes) 30 seconds we give to a book in the bookshop, or online, or wherever, before putting it back down again.

Imagine the trauma for the author. It would be like naming a baby and then being told "Apple" or "Fifi" is a stinker, and has to be changed, however many years after naming. So why is this power struggle between author and publisher so apparently important? Because the latter knows all too well that despite the old aphorism of never judging a book by its cover, we all do to some degree, even to an unconscious degree.

A very nice lady from Transworld was unusually candid about the subject, not long ago, over a cup of tea. The bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce's acclaimed novel, came to Black Swan as To Be a Pilgrim, until the in-house team decided that title was too dull. SJ Watson's sensational debut, Before I Go to Sleep (so sensational that Ridley Scott bought the film rights) began life as The Sea Horse Diaries. Hippy Dinners, Abbie Ross's successful memoir of rural life, was originally called Running Against the Wind. Was the enormous success of these books down to the title? Hardly, and yet... The woman from Transworld certainly felt that the title was an important aspect of bookselling, and buying: "Titles are so important in terms of pulling readers in and intriguing them." Another editor I spoke to on the same subject went further to say that if problems arose in agreeing on a title during the "naming" discussion, this often meant the story itself didn't quite work.

I'm sitting on the fence with this one. There is a small inner voice that agrees with the idea that we make fast, instinctive decisions when we buy a book blind – so not based on recommendations or reviews but on how it looks, feels and how much its title appeals. Adam Thorpe wrote a commentary on titles in the TLS a while ago in which he admitted to feeling title envy towards Fifty Shades of Grey. It is, he said dryly, "poetic, even enticing. I wondered whether this might have partly explained the novel's record-smashing success..." He went on to say that he failed to find his new book at the WH Smith's stand in Luton airport. "This is how it usually is, but given the novel's title – Flight – and its genre (thriller starring a pursued cargo pilot), I felt mild surprise." Perhaps it was a pragmatic, and instinctive, decision by the bookseller – how many people want to be reminded of the dangerous potential of air-travel as they are about to take off?

To judge a book by its title is of course a snap decision, but there is reasoning behind it, I think. We live in a world where every element of a physical book reflects its genre: its cover design, its puff quotes, its size, its title. Just as we may decide that a stranger at a party is our "type" based on the same rapid if seemingly shallow assessment, so it is with a book. Then again, there are books whose titles actively seem to count against them, which have nevertheless gained acclaim. I remember, to my shame, picking up AM Homes's May We Be Forgiven, and putting it back down again because the title not only seemed unwieldy but also had church sermon-like connotations. When someone at work first mentioned Stoner, a hitherto forgotten novel written in the 1960s, I thought "I'm not one for all that post-Beat generation drug-taking", when it was about a staid university professor called William Stoner. A reading of these prize-winning books left me chastened. Never again will I judge a book by its bad title but will bear Julian Barnes's recent, wise words in mind: "A book makes a title, not the other way round".

Need some self help for 2014? consult the philosophers

The "how to…" books will invariably enter our line of vision as we see in the new year. So it's refreshing to see a stack of mono-coloured little books on pretty much the same old New Year subjects – how to exercise, how to deal with adversity, how to be alone – which are written by philosophers, or their kind. Damon Young kicks off his book, How to Think About Exercise, published by the School of Life, with a discussion on substance dualism and Descartes. He also makes fun of hulking gym bunnies with an ironic picture of a personal trainer. Christopher Hamilton, another philosopher, talks about tackling adversity with an opening quote by Rilke and has un-feel good sub-headings such as "the vacuity of life" and "ontological misfits". The general idea, he adds, is that the book offers philosophy as a way of life. A marvellous idea indeed. If you need self-help, turn to the philosophers.