Monday, March 29, 2010

Title madness (or blandness)

I would just like to direct everyone to this excellent Guardian post on book titles. Darragh McManus vents a little on the way books are titled these days, rightly pointing out that for every genre there's the dull, depressingly predictable template. McManus focuses on literary fiction as a new victim of this disease.

This was once limited to what used to be – and probably still is – called genre fiction: Chick Lit, Mum Lit, Bloke Lit, Chicks With Dicks Lit, Blokes With No Dicks Lit, Zombie Novels, Zombie Crossover Novels, Zombies With Dicks Lit, the Tom Clancy oeuvre, and so on. Now, though, what still is – and will continue to be – called literary fiction has also caught the "samey title" virus. At times I suspect there's a computer somewhere that spews out clich├ęd names for such works, depending on how badly the publishers want it to be Taken Very Seriously Indeed.

McManus has nailed it. See, that point that non-industry booklovers often like to ignore (or, at least, I like to ignore) is that publishing books is a business. Like all businesses, it's kind of ugly. Book titles are like covers - you judge based on them. Personally, titles can sell me onto a book without any knowledge of what the book is about. Don't believe me? I bought "The Periodic Table" because I had a chemistry exam coming up. Titles matter.

And publishers have realized this. "Literary fiction" (and what, exactly, is literary fiction? More on that later...) got a template of bland vagueness. McManus' examples of "The Inheritance of Loss", "The Unnamed", "The Surrendered", "The Girl with Glass Feet", etc., show this precisely. Can you figure out anything about the tone, the style, the depth or the story from these titles? I'll even give you the answer: no. These titles have no spark, nothing to distinguish them. Which is, it seems, exactly the point. Literary fiction, it seems, is defined by its lack of individuality. It's someone's wife, or daughter, or shadow, or... To sum up, this comes from commenter harley26:

one final point - everyone always blames the publishers for this kind of bland marketing but I think it's time to have a go at the readers. If it weren't for us lot lapping up this s**t, they wouldn't bother to sell it so.

Well said.

3 comments:

  1. Can you figure out anything about the tone, the style, the depth or the story from these titles? I'll even give you the answer: no. These titles have no spark, nothing to distinguish them. Which is, it seems, exactly the point. Literary fiction, it seems, is defined by its lack of individuality.

    I think you may have contradicted yourself here. At least, I think these titles do tell me something about style and depth, if not necessarily plot. They tell me they will be "typical literary fiction, as found on the front tables of major book chains." This is a Type for me, and while some are relatively good, others relatively bad, and a few turn out to actually be really good books, I think the reason they fit the same marketing niche is because they also generally fit the same literary niche.

    I like the comment you cite as well. The Guardian post laments a bit the fact that publishing is a business and involves marketing, but that is something I have learned to accept and even embrace. If the marketers are doing their jobs right (and they aren't always), the right stuff will find its way to me. And frankly, these bland titles that I find so awful...I don't really want to read most of the books either.

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  2. What an interesting article! For my part, the next time I see a book titled "The _____'s Wife/Daughter?" I might cut a bitch. Nothing is worse than having female characters entirely classified by their relationship to (usually) A MAN.

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  3. Nicole, your point is well taken. I suppose these traits do say a few things about the books, even if I can't stand them and what they symbolize. You're right - there is a literary fiction Type. I guess I'm just not a big fan of it.

    Connie, yes the ubiquitous "daughter/wife" title. There is something a bit demeaning to it, no? Rather like the tendency to have titles that start with "The girl" (thanks, Larsson). Something a bit off to these titles.

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