Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Titles That Stick and Titles That Suck

In the fall, when Knopf Canada sent me two possible cover designs for my book, I began asking friends which factor was more likely to make them pick up a novel by a writer they'd never heard of: the title or the cover.
More than three months have passed since these conversations, so I can’t remember a thing anyone said, but the question came to me again today as I looked through the list of books I've read this year.
Books I Read Simply Because of Their Titles:
·         This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky
·         Londonstani by Gautam Malkani
·         How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (brilliantly funny, highly recommended)
Books I Read Despite Their Titles: 
·         Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
·         Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
·         The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Books That Fit into Both Categories:
·         The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and his Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan
Of course the title is extremely important, but it seems to be one of the hardest things to get to. Apparently (i.e. according to Wikipedia), it took F. Scott Fitzgerald some time to settle on The Great Gatsby. Earlier titles included Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires (just awful), Trimalchio in West Egg (even worse), and The High-Bouncing Lover (!?).  And although he was finally persuaded to accept The Great Gatsby, he wasn’t crazy about it.
My first title for Beyond the Sky and the Earth was Bhutan Mist, which is also the name of a “Scotch” produced in Bhutan (by the Army Welfare Project, which tells you why “Scotch” is in quotation marks).  My editor dismissed my working title on the grounds of "it doesn't work" and "sounds like a perfume."
“Your title is probably in the book," she said, so I went back to the manuscript to look for it. I then proposed the literal translation of the Dzongkha phrase for “thank you very much”: No Sky, No Earth, Thank You. That, too, was rejected with breathtaking alacrity, but it did lead to the title that stuck.
The original title for my novel was Who You Are to Us. Very Alice Munro-ish, I thought, but my agent gave me a look that said, “You are not Alice Munro.” For several months, as I struggled with revisions, I referred to it as That Motherf***ing Motherhood Novel.
And then my friend Dan suggested I turn to music for inspiration. He gave me a stack of CDs that matched the era I was writing about and specifically suggested Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Good-bye.” Hurray! I had a title!
Luckily, titles cannot be copyrighted. Even more luckily, the agency representing the Cole Porter Trust gave me permission to quote the lyrics in the book.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Hieroglyph of Fear

In her Dec. 14 column in Salon, "Why We Love Bad Writing," book critic Laura Miller quotes C.S. Lewis's "An Experiment in Criticism" to explain why so many readers might actually prefer the cliches that run through the work of genre writers like Steig Larsson and Dan Brown. "'My blood ran cold' is a hieroglyph of fear," Lewis explained, a kind of hieroglyph that does not require the reader to pay words the "kind and degree of attention" that a more literary turn of phrase would.

I stayed up half the night to finish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I had to work to NOT pay attention to Larsson`s language, which caused much eye-rolling in the opening chapters (at things like the list of computer specs, which in a few years time, will be the equivalent of reading that Lisbeth plugged in her Commodore 64 and turned on her dot-matrix printer). I have no interest in reading the rest of the trilogy: in the end, the flaws in Larsson`s style detracted too much from my enjoyment of his excellent ability to unspool a plot -- in much the same way that the millefeuille-style of a beautifully poetic writer like Anne Michaels detracts from my abiliy to enjoy her storyline.

The problem, as Miller shows, is when critics try to turn these personal preferences into literary laws and then sneer at the hapless law-breakers enjoying their Larsson or their Michaels.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Humankind cannot bear very much reality

Writing: The Fantasy

The house is not just clean, but digitially altered (rooms are elongated, windows enlarged, piles of paper replaced by vases of gardenias). There's a pot of hot coffee, two cheese straws on a white linen napkin, a Mason jar of sharp pencils. My hair is straight and I am wearing lip gloss. I sit at the table and turn on my laptop and I write all day. When I look up, it is dark. Time for a glass of wine and some Ella Fitzgerald.

Writing: The Reality

The sink is full of dishes and my Ontario Health Card just expired. The mesh in my French press is warped so my coffee is murky. My hair is uncombed and I can't find my Chapstick. I sit on the sofa surrounded by piles of unmarked exams. I can't find my character's voice. I know that 95% of what I have written today will be deleted, but I polish it anyway. When I look up, it is dark, but this is no great accomplishment because it was dark when I sat down. Time for a glass of wine and some Ella Fitzgerald.

Tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Top Ten of Twenty Ten

Books I loved this year:

  1. Room by Emma Donoghue
  2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  3. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
  4. Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor
  5. Cherry Electra by Matt Duggan
  6. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
  7. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  8. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  9. Supersad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  10. By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham