Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 30 March 2009

This post has no title


A good title is a work of genius. – Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. – David Ogilvy

t2Titles have a number of purposes, to label, to attract, to inform. They're the first thing a reader hits and many never get past that. A lot of great literature often comes with poor titles. Nineteen Eighty-Four is really not a very good title if you think about it. It has become meaningful but in 1948 when the book came out I wonder what the general readership thought? They might have thought it was an almanac or something with one hell of a typo on the cover.

Now, what about I Am Legend? It could easily have been called The Last Man on Earth or The Omega Man even. I actually prefer The Omega Man.

We live in the information age and what a title conveys is information or it might be misinformation.

I wrote a poem once entitled 'Untitled'. It wasn't without a title, 'Untitled' was the title. It was supposed to be making a comment on the fact that so many works of art are untitled without even a number to distinguish one from another. It wasn't until later I started to run across poems with no titles and I don't just mean haiku; there were poems by western authors where they just couldn’t be bothered including one … at least that's how I looked at it then. Lazy buggers, I thought.

The titles of scientific articles that are primarily reports of experiments usually contain information about the cause-effect relation investigated. "The Effect of Alcohol on Driving Impairment" and that's fine but novels and short stories and poems are not scientific articles.

So, how does one go about choosing a title?

Mona Gustafson Affinito offers up one approach. In her blog post of September 12th, 2008 she had this to say:

Help choose a title

I'm looking for a more gripping title for my "Book of Mrs. Job." Please help. Would any of these attract you with the thought of buying? (There will be a cover with the caves of Petra in the background and a beautiful woman with flowing sleeves in the foreground.)

· Steadfast conviction

· Wisdom's trials

· For better and for worse

· Or the suggestion of your choice.


I expect she consulted with her friends and family too. She got a couple of responses neither of which was especially enthusiastic. I personally would have gone with simply Mrs Job because it's short and punchy. Any of the others would put me off. I actually had no idea what the book was Mrs. Job when I first stumbled across this entry about but I read on and discovered her book is now in print. And what do you know; the title she opted for was Mrs Job after all.

Also, once I finished digging through her archives I discovered that that was exactly what the book was about, the wife of Job, the Job in the Bible, the Job whom God allowed to be tested simply to prove a point. For a 21st century book on the subject I think it's an excellent choice. How good the book is is neither here nor there. The purpose of the title is to get someone to pick the damn thing up and think about actually buying it.

Of course a title can become a trademark if you have a series of books. Or perhaps I mean a brand. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke. Of course it began life as a short story, 'The Sentinel', though when it was first published in the magazine 10 Story Fantasy in 1951 the title had been modified, presumably by the editor, to 'Sentinel of Eternity'. Although the second title is clearer one has to wonder why the need to change the title at all since it was already appearing in a science fiction periodical and the readers would know up front, and be expecting to read, a selection of science fiction stories; one would think a title was not so important here.

In time it was combined with the 1953 short story 'Encounter in the Dawn' and considerably expanded to form the basis of the 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick and the novel bore the name of the film. In 1982 a sequel appeared: 2010: Odyssey Two and in 1987, 2061: Odyssey Three followed eventually in 1997 with 3001: The Final Odyssey.

David Peace's Red Riding Quartet also has years as the titles: Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Two. And that's fine after you've bought that first book but what would possess anyone to name a book with just a year? At least Clarke's book has a colon and "the real title" after it. The same goes for 1979: A Big Year in a Small Town by Rhona Cameron.

In Japan, where Peave lives and where he wrote his novels, the books actually go out with the titles: 1974: Joker, 1977: Ripper, 1980: Hunter and 1982: Ghost. The logic was that the Japanese wouldn't be au fait with the Yorkshire Ripper killings and needed a little something else. Seemingly it worked because, according to a recent documentary I saw, he sold ten times the number of books in Japan compared to the UK.

snow What gets me though is the way editors will muck around with a title depending on the country in which the book is published. Artwork is one thing, but the title? An example: in America the Danish novel Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne is translated as Smilla's Sense of Snow whereas it's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow in other English-language translations. Why? Do alliterative titles sell better in America?

On the Tate Publishing blog, Curtis Winkle cites a number of examples where famous books had major surgery to their titles:

Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was originally titled Private Fleming, His Various Battles. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was originally titled Hurrah for the Red White and Blue. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was originally titled As Others Are. – Publishing a Book: The Importance of a Good Title

He also talks about the brainstorming session, "Title Storms", where his editors get together and rethink the title of the books they have on their books. Here are a few examples:

Original title: I'm Only Wanda, but Jesus is God
New title: From Germany to Guam: A Missionary's Life

Original title: Dear Diary
New title: Blurred Vision: One Woman’s Memoir of Looking Beyond Abuse and Alcoholism

Original title: Blessed
New title: The Interim: Finding God’s Blessing in Pain’s Midst

These all look like non-fiction books. I really can't think of any great book with colons in the titles but I'm sure one or two of you will be able to help me out there.

Let's go back to Nineteen Eighty-Four for a moment. According to Wikipedia:

One of the original titles for the novel was The Last Man in Europe, but in a letter to publisher Frederic Warburg dated 22 October 1948 (eight months before the book was published), Orwell stated that he was "hesitating" between that and Nineteen Eighty-Four, although Crick mentions that it was Warburg who suggested changing it to a marketable title.

Was the choice of year arbitrary? Not really, because he also considered Nineteen Eighty and then Nineteen Eighty-Two but as publication kept being delayed he kept adding a couple of years on.

When Anthony Burgess wrote 1985 there really was no need for any colon. Anyone picking up the book would fully expect it to be related to Orwell's in some way. Burgess' book builds on what we know already. Other titles are much more straightforward. Waiting for Godot for example does exactly what it says on the tin. That is all the play is about. It is its focal point, the fulcrum, its lead characters' reason for being. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not however a book describing an expensive breakfast.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, a man with the memorable-if-somewhat-unfortunate name of Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius sold 200 million copies of his "Little Blue Books" by title alone! This man analysed in detail which titles sold and which didn't, and uncovered some of what he referred to as "magic words" that prompt people to buy.

Here are a few:

  • "How to ..."
  • "The Truth about ..."
  • "The Story of  ..."
  • "Love"
  • "Life"
  • "What You Should Know about ..."
  • "The Art of ..."
  • "The Secret to ..."

So one has to wonder why people aren't falling over themselves to visit my site but let's not get off topic.

E. Haldeman-Julius had a system. If a title didn't sell over 10,000 copies in a year, it was sent to a place in his office called "The Hospital" and here it would be given a new title. And if the new title bombed, then it went into "The Morgue."

As an example, he had a book titled: "Art of Controversy" which didn't exceed his 10,000 copy yardstick. The title was changed to: "How to Argue Logically" and sales soared to 30,000 copies. Why? He changed nothing about the book - just the title.

By doing this, Haldeman-Julius discovered that certain words, when used in the title, could increase sales of almost any book.

For example, a book by Dr. Arthur Cramp in 1925 called: "Patent Medicine" sold a measly 3,000 copies. Haldeman-Julius changed the title to: "The Truth About Patent Medicine" and sales rose to a respectable 10,000 copies. Haldeman-Julius found that the words: "The Truth About" had some sort of magic.

Haldeman-Julius found that old chestnut: "How To" in a title was far and away the best. For example, the title: "How to Psycho-analyze Yourself" out-sold "Psycho-analysis Explained" and "How I Psycho-analyzed Myself" by almost four times. – Peter Woodhead, The Most Important Part of Your Copy Will Increase Your Conversions

So what are we saying here? Basically that a title is an advert for a book, plain and simple. That's partly what Ogilvy is going on about in that quote at the top of the page. At least it forms a major part of an advertising campaign. There are other things, like the jacket illustration, tag line and even an author's name although I could never see what Orwell had against the name 'Eric Blair' myself but there you go. Another quote that Ogilvy is famous for is: "Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn't sell much of anything."

[In] the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dr. Hakim Chishti was a U.S. government research scholar and was living in the Near East, studying the roots of several languages, Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu and several others.

His research found that there are these basic underlying harmonics, a tonality that flows through languages, which are in many ways more profound and powerful than the dictionary meaning itself. Whereas sometimes meaning can be mistaken, the sound tones are always interpreted the same way by the emotions. These are better said as "emotional" reactions, although the effect is subtle. - Advanced Marketing Instutute

The institute provides an Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyser on it so I plugged in The Truth About Lies to see how well it did. It game me a 25% Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) score. It also had this to add:

While the overall EMV score for your headline is 25.00%, your headline also has the following predominant emotion classification:


Your headline carries words that have a predominantly Spiritual appeal. Words that resonate with Spiritual impact are the smallest number of words in the language. AMI research has found that Spiritual impact words carry the strongest potential for influence and often appeal to people at a very deep emotional level.

Words with Spiritual impact are best used with people and businesses desiring to make an appeal to some aspect of spirituality. This does not mean religion specifically, but any product or service that resonates with “spirituality” oriented markets are appropriate. The clergy, new age, health food and related markets all respond favourably to sales copy heavy with Spiritual impact content. Women and children also respond strongly to words in the Spiritual sphere. Marketing documents with strong Spiritual impact content can make for the most powerful presentations in the marketplace but must be used with considerable skill. also has a Titlescorer which I thought I'd give a go. It said:

The title The Truth About Lies has a 10.2% chance of being a bestselling title!

which was the same figure that The Holy Bible gets. So I tried putting in just The Bible and it had a 35.9% chance of becoming a best seller. What was God thinking?

Okay then. Moving on.

I've never been one for working titles. I came up with the title for each of my novels very quickly. And they were all very obvious to me. I never started out with a title although I have done that with the odd poem but even there the title usually comes afterwards. With the exception of Milligan and Murphy I have always favoured titles that carry layers of meaning like Living with the Truth or Stranger than Fiction. I can't say that the marketing possibilities never crossed my mind but really the titles I chose were ones I considered appropriate to the works. Titles can't be copyrighted of course which is just as well because Stranger than Fiction is also a film, an album by Southern Californian hardcore punk band Bad Religion, a used bookstore located on Vashon Island, a compilation album featuring writers singing (e.g Stephen King on 'You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover'), the name of an American improv theatre company, an animation company, a Tuesday night documentary series held at the IFC Centre in New York, somebody's Facebook page and the heading for several newspaper articles in The Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, The Colorado Springs Independent among others.

I could go on but you get the idea. I mean how does one pick a title that is original, unique and will appeal to a book-buying public unless you opt for the longest title you can think of? How about:

Selected Works of Nigel Tomm (2006/2007) (Shakespeare's Sonnets Remixed 2006 / Shakespeare's Hamlet Remixed 2007 / Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet Remixed 2007 / Including Previously Unpublished Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender Remix 2007) Nigel Tomm is The Winner of The Anonymous Writers Club Award 2006 for The Best Anonymous Writer / Deconstructed Poetry Award 2006 for Innovations and Teamwork in Poetry / Decadence Prize 2007 for The Lifestyle / Flashy Rococo Coco Award 2006 for Flashy Thoughts / Baby Boomers Award 2006 for The Best Marketing / Anonymous Artists Prize 2007 for The Best Anonymous Artist / Life Academy Award 2006 for Ignorance of Some Aspects of Life / Graphomania Award 2007 for Writing / Formal English Institute Award 2006 for English Grammar Improvements / House of Original Remixes Award 2006 for Creativity / WordKillers Award 2006 for Killing Some Words Sometimes in Some Books / iStyle Award 2006 for Being Unnamed Style Icon / Librarians Under Sixty Award 2007 for Staying Young / Comedy Association Award 2007 for The Best Drama / Happy Dramatists Award 2006 for The Realest Reality Show / New Forms Award 2006 for Rediscovering Something Old / Best of The Best Award 2007 for Being The Best of The Bests / Alaska Lifetime Achievement Prize 2006 for Bringing The Sun to Canada / Flaming Unisex Award 2007 for Coming to Flaming Unisex Awards / Random Books Award 2006 for Random Words Which Sometimes Sell / Happy Housekeepers Award 2007 for Being an Example to Follow / Wild Foresters Award 2006 for Saving Trees from Book Lovers / Writing Bodybuilders Award 2007 for Keeping Nice Forms / Life Coaching Without Words Award 2006 for Bringing New Life to Some Words / Writing for Writing Foundation Award 2007 for Rewriting Some Writings / Speaking Parrots Award 2007 for Some Fresh Phrases / CopyPasters Award 2007 for Recopying Shakespeare / Silent People Award 2006 for Talking about Silence / Strange Books Award 2006 for The Best Back Cover Text / I Don't Care Award 2006 for Something We All Don't Care / Happy Clowns Award 2006 for The Biggest Sad Smile / Nonexistence Award 2007 for Trying to Believe in Existence / MTV eBooks Award 2007 for The Best Male Reader / Bicycle Fans Award 2006 for not Writing About Bicycles / Cool Firemen Award 2006 for New Flames in Literature / Penguin Lovers Prize 2007 for Being Vegetarian / Green Grass Award 2006 for Frustrated Ecology in Hamlet Remixed / Vintage Love Award 2006 for Writing About Old School Love / New Letters Award 2006 for Some Useless Innovations / Retired Encyclopedists Award 2007 for Universality in Rewriting / Nice Web Developers Award 2007 for Fresh Look / Space Lovers Award 2006 for Exploration of Literary Cosmos / Monotony Award 2006 for The Best Performance / Homemade Video Award 2007 for The Best Home Interior / Illusory Zoo Committee Prize 2007 for The Best Animal Character / Degenerated Politicians Award 2006 for Belief in Moral Norms / F***ing Teenagers Award 2007 for The Best Kiss / Tomorrow Morning's Fragrances Association Award 2006 for Smelling Words / London Punks Foundation Award 2007 for Ultra Cool Book with Hip Ending / Pessimistic Bankers Prize 2007 for Fresh Ideas on Pessimism / Soft-Hardcore Erotica Award 2006 for Remixed Feelings / Slow Talking Runners Award 2007 for Some Sweet Chats about Nothing / Honest Jet-Setters Prize 2006 for Being Honest to Honest People / Good Looking Pop Stars Award 2006 for The Best Interview Act / Disorientated Literary Agents Award 2006 for Trusting Nobody / Archaic Victorian Baroque Award 2007 for Crossing Borders Between Borders / Multicultural Context Prize 2006 for Multiculturalism in Books / Two Happy People Award 2007 for Mixed Palette of Happiness / Fragile Machines Prize 2007 for The Best Text on Robotic Psychology / Passionate Red Cherries Award 2006 for Dynamic Use of The Word 'Cool' / Late 1950s Award 2007 for Neutrality on Some Remixed Questions / Classical Counterculture Award 2006 for Development of Remix Cult

Not very catchy. It doesn't really trip off the tongue does it?

Up till now I've been talking mostly about books. What about the humble poem? Surely the purpose here is not so much to sell the piece as to … as to what? All my poems have titles (except for one haiku) and a number. That poem I was on about earlier entitled 'Untitled' is also #510 and is contained in a single text file called 510.txt.

I have to admit to often being a bit thoughtless about giving poems titles and it's something I feel a bit guilty about. If a poem is a glass of milk then its title is the mint imperial we pop into our mouth before drinking it; it changes the experience entirely. At least it can.

Let’s have a look at an example:


Shared dreams in the Morris -
snowbound and silent.

I saw you in silhouette
and I loved what I saw.

Illuminated briefly
I saw still further
and loved still more.

(For F.)

22 January 1984

Now, what title would you give this piece? 'The Morris'? 'Snowbound'? or did I pick something clever and ambiguous? It's a biographical piece but I don't think F. would fare much better guessing – she was never really into poetry. You can find the title at the end of this post. But hang on a minute before you check because here's another one to have a think about.

# 616

I told her that I loved her
to fill the gaps between us.
But the gaps were too big
and my words were too small.

So with nothing more to cling to
she held herself and shivered,
then with neither word not gesture
she turned and walked away.

17 December 1987

For the record this is not a biographical poem. So, what do you think? 'Gaps'? 'Small Words'? Again the title can be found at the end.

Both of these poems works just fine without a title. To my mind the title in these instances is really an integral part of the poem, i.e. a poem includes its title. I think one of the most basic purposes of a title is to stir the reader's imagination and curiosity. Quite often I'll read a piece and then go back, look at the title and go, "Eh?" And then I look at the piece again because I think I've missed something. And I usually have. A poem isn't a puzzle to solve any more than its title is a clue at least not in such a crude sense.

I had a look though my library and picked what I think are the best titles.

Naïve. Super

The Demolished Man

Transparent Things

Born with the Dead

A Clockwork Orange

Scenes from the Life of a Best-selling Author

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

The Nimrod Flip-Out

Man Plus

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What do you know, one of them did have a colon in it! I made this choice quickly in much the same way as one might select books whilst browsing in a bookshop. These were the ones that jumped out at me. Some are short, some are long. All are cryptic in their own way. No doubt you'll be able to furnish your own lists because we're all different people. And that really is the point.

Oh, by the way, here are the titles of the two poems I included earlier. I'm not saying these are the best titles possible but I do think that both of them add a layer or two to two fairly ordinary poems.



In case anyone wonders neither of us fell asleep in the car nor did I know anyone called Julia when I wrote this poem although I did know a Julie.


McGuire said...

Titles are difficult, I'm never satisfid. My paltry collection of poetry has been landed with the unfortunate title.

'Important Nonsense: notes from a Glaswegian immaturity.' But for now it's just a small press thing. I think I prefer the title 'Riddled with errors.' But that's another issue altogether.

I have never seen titles analyised quite so meticulously, I was glad of the analysis, it has made a few ideas in my head come clearer.

Molto interesante.

Ken Armstrong said...

This seems like a nice opportunity to repeat a rumour that I mentioned to you sometime last year. It's the idea that Beckett, familiar with the Irish Language, was fully aware that the expression 'Go Deo' means 'forever' in Irish. (I think it's it's probably too cute to be true but still...)

Phrases can be messed up when translated into other languages so I guess people have to tread carefully sometime. I am reminded (and I'm only repeating this as I heard it) that a Pepse Ad Campaign in the '80's had to be abandoned when it came to light that the slogan 'Come Alive, You're in a Pepsi Generation!' translated into Cantonese as 'Pepsi Makes Your Dead Relatives Come Back To Life!'

I think it had a ring to it. :)

Conda Douglas said...

Fun post for April 1st, Jim--love the endless title, can imagine it on a book, a really, really BIG book!

With titles, they either come to me right off or it takes forever and I'm never satisfied. Either/or.

Jena Isle said...

You have pretty good titles in your posts. It is always difficult to think of a title because this will be the first thing that may attract a reader.

I would never forget a book entitled: "I am the Cheese". The unique title caught my attention and prompted me to read the book, and I was thankful I did because the book has given me a new perspective about life.

I like your title: "The Truth About Lies" and of course, the content is something utterly amazing too. Truth in human form.

Cheers and happy blogging.

Dick said...

Bloody hell, Jim, this falls only a page or two short of a Ph.D thesis! Excellent in every respect. I've copied it for further careful scrutiny offline. Two comments now.
'Mrs Job' sounds like a fine title - brief yet resonant. And unless I missed reference in the fine detail of this post, no mention is made of the titles of the groundbreaking novels of the modernist maverick, Henry Green - 'Living', 'Party Going', 'Loving', 'Back', 'Concluding', 'Nothing' and 'Doting'. Terse and intriguing.

Jim Murdoch said...

McGuire, go with Riddled with Errors. It's short, punchy and self-deprecatory. I'd pick that up. I have a poem entitled 'Do Not Read this Poem' and it's simply impossible not to read. There was one exception to this: the daughter of a friend of mine was flicking though my poems, came to it, read the title then promptly and obediently turned the page; she was eight at the time.

Christ, Ken, I've heard so many ideas where 'Godot' came from but the great man never let on. I can remember where most of my major characters names came from but they're not always so clever. Jonathan Payne for example – the 'Jonathan' was taken straight from The Pigeon because that's where I got the original idea; 'Payne' is simply 'pain' because the guy's in pain.

You know, Conda, I never really thought about it being April 1st. As for titles, yes, you're quite right. I do think they're the one thing that all authors are a bit sloppy with. Okay, if a great one comes then they'll go with it but if not then, usually because we're keen to move onto something else, we'll pick any old thing.

Thank you, Jena, I do try and make my titles interesting even if they only have a tenuous link to the subject matter (e.g. 'The next John Cleese').

And, Dick, you are too kind. The thing is, no matter how much I write in these blogs I always feel I'm just scratching the surface of most of my topics and I keep planning to go back and open up aspects of them but then other things get in the road. I've been intending to do a post on Spike Milligan for over a year now but there is so much to cover every time I even think about starting just the thought of it exhausts me. I'll get round to it one of these days.

I have heard of Henry Green's books but you can't include everything. That's why having people make comments like this is so good because people can fill in the gaps in my articles, so thank you for that.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I remember once coming across facing pages in Poetry magazine each featured a poem titled "Insomnia". It confirmed my idea that many a poem needs no title. But then I didn't much like either "Insomnia".

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Glenn. You know it surprises me that for all the time I've spent sitting around in the wee hours I don't think I've ever thought to write about insomnia. I suppose I felt it was a bit of an easy target.

Jeannie said...

I title my blog posts based on the most catchy item in my blog.

For example, the punchline of my blog "Public Urination in Boca" doesn't come until the end. I used that title to motivate my readers to take my post to the end.

Thanks for an insiteful post.

P.S. Caught you on the blog carnival. I'm listed there too.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve been submitting to two or three blog carnivals every week for months now, Jeannie. I guess that’s a post for another day but what’s the point writing a great post and then no one turning up to read it? I see what you’re saying about choosing titles. I do that too as best I can. And, of course, managing to slip a couple of killer keywords in there does no harm either.

quadibloc said...

I think it's just as well that 1984 didn't get the title "Last Man in Europe". After all, a famous story titled "Last Men in London" was published in 1932 (it was a sequel to Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men) and so some people might have been confused.

Jim Murdoch said...

Did not know that Quadibloc. That's for dropping by and letting us know.

Unknown said...

Hi Jim,

I stumbled across your post when trying to hunt down the list of EMV words used in the AMI Headline Analyzer.

A great, thought-provoking post - just a shame I didn't see it until 3 years later.

Best regards,

Jeremy Tarrier

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