February 5th 2010
…as it were.
No, I’m not talking about privilege and THAT kind of entitlement. I’m talking about the names of books.
What made me start cogitating on this was quite simple – I got a hefty book for Christmas, one I wanted and asked for – Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, the story of Thomas Cromwell and the turbulent Tudors whom he served. This is not a review of that book – but suffice it to say that I enjoyed it much, read it quickly, and will definitely be looking out for the sequel when it comes out. But, no, the reason I bring it up is because of its title.
The book is called “Wolf Hall”.
It ends – this is SIX HUNDRED PAGES LATER – with Cromwell and his household planning to accompany Henry VIII on a royal progress – and perhaps, along the way, they will have a few spare days during whic… they can drop in on Wolf Hall.
The seat of the Seymour family (who will have an impact on the kingdom once Jane-of-that-ilk ascends the throne).
Where *the protagonist of this entire book, or any of his folk as far as I gather, have NEVER YET BEEN*.
I loved the book. I have no idea why it is called Wolf Hall when it is about almost every other thing under the Tudor sun EXCEPT that. Maybe I am just being to under-literary to understand properly – but I was left scratching my head at the end of an otherwise perfectly good read and wondering if it had been named by the same people who give those odd and non-sequitur names to prize racehorses.
Titles are kind of important. They are the first, the VERY first, encounter your reader has with your book. With my Worldweavers series, “Spellspam” and “Cybermage” were my own titles, and they were taken as is by the publisher, and that was that. With the first book… I originally wanted to call it “The Last Ditch School for hte Incurably Incompetent” (what? too long? look at the Flora Segunda titles!!!) I thought the phrase would be catchy and memorable and I proved right because when the reviews came in most of them made some reference to that school in those terms. People liked that, they sniggered at it, snorted at it, chortled at it, and REMEMBERED IT. Instead, the book went out under the title “Gift of the Unmage” which was essentially a title done by committee, hammered out between me and my editors until we could find something that we could ALL vaguely live with – and I still think it’s too vague, too bloodless, and too unmemorable because nobody knows what “unmage” is or is supposed to mean (and for the most part ignorance goes hand in hand with indolence, so why would they bother being interested enough to find out…?)
More title skulduggery – when I wrote the high-fantasy duology that would become, in the United States, “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days” – well – that book was originally written as ONE BOOK, and that one book’s name was “Changer of Days”. In New Zealand, where the duology was first published in two volumes, they turned up as Changer of Days Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 so they KIND of kept the title intact – but in the USA they wanted a unique name for that first book. I still vividly remember sitting with my editor from Harper Collins in a New York tea shop haggling over that title like it was a prize bull calf – until once again we hammered out a compromise that neither was completely happy with but which we could both live with.
Ditto for what became “The Secrets of Jin Shei”. In my head that book has always been just “Jin Shei”. No secrets in the title. You were supposed to find out about the secrets when you read the book.
Our own Marie Brennan has a genius with titles when it comes to her Onyx Court series – “Midnight Never Come”, “In Ashes Lie”. These SOUND like they are part of something else, something bigger, something GREATER, and they call, they invite you in, they lure and they bat their little title-eyelashes until you pick the book up, intrigued, to find out more, and once you do you’re sucked in and it’s over.
Now think about the Robert Jordan mega-cycle. Remember some of those titles? Here, let me remind you of some of them.
“The Eye of the World”
“The Great Hunt”
“The Dragon Reborn”
“The Shadow Rising”
“Lord of Chaos”
“Path of Daggers”
“Knife of Dreams”
“Crossroads of Twilight”
How many generic Extruded Fantasy Product words can you count there? The Twlights. The Storms, The Crossroads. The Chaos. If you discount the fact that they are so VERY well known and therefore you recognise them for what they are, these titles could belong to any fantasy book, anywhere. They have no strong and specific ties to anything. They are generic titles of a particular template – most of them follow “The SOMETHING of SOMETHING” pattern, and such titles, to me at least, always feel as though they were kind of slapped on to the book afterwards, by a group of people, possibly in Marketing, who may or may not have read the book in question at all.
What’s in a name, Shakespeare asked once. Does it really matter? I mean, the Jordan books are selling briskly enough, he has MILLIONS of fans everywhere, and you might argue that they’d still be selling if they were called “The Dishwater of the Generic Medieval Inn” (probably complete with bits of greasy generic stew floating in it…) But – what do you think? How important is a title to a book? Have you ever rejected a book because the title was boring, or repulsive? Have you ever picked up a book BECAUSE of a title and found it had nothing to do with it at all? Did either experience leave a mark?…
Are the readers “entitled” to a good title?…
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Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
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