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.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall