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Titles That Grab Readers by the Collar

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

September 2011

"If you want to get a book read, it’s got to have a compelling title. "

Oh, to have an editor like the famous Sol Stein! In Stein on Writing, (St. Martin’s Press, 1995) he tells how Elia Kazan’s mother brought her son’s book to Stein. It was called The Anatolian Smile. I had no idea what that meant. When I looked it up, I found out Kazan was born in Constantinople in 1909 to an Anatolian Greek family living under Turkish rule in the Ottoman Empire. Kazan attributes much to his Anatolian origins, especially his desire to wear the “Anatolian smile” that covers up resentment. Really, if you have to look a title up, chances are, you’d never read the book. Besides, the title had nothing to do with the title had nothing to do with the theme, which was immigration. A young man wanted to escape the hardships of the Old World to come to this country so badly that he was willing to kill to do it. Stein changed the title to America, America. The novel, which is a great piece of literature and a terrific movie.

If you want to get a book read, it’s got to have a compelling title. If a reviewer has never heard of an author before, what attracts him to review a book is its title. Go to a bookstore—oh, wait, there are hardly any of those left anymore–and look at book titles. Would you be attracted to a book called “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Gosh, I wrote that title for every essay I turned in at the beginning of the school year. After all, I couldn’t have called it, “Necking Under the Boardwalk” or “Water Bombs Thrown from Second Story Porches.” But public school days are over and you need to think of yourself as a marketer as well as a writer.

Nonfiction titles are crucial as well. I became re-interested in Anais Nin from seeing Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris. Out of all the books about her on the shelf, I chose The Erotic Life of Anais Nin by Noel Riley Fitch (Little Brown and Co., 1995.) Would I have chosen The Life of Anais Nin? The Biography of Anais Nin? Probably not, although now I wish I had. I left the book at my allergist’s office and someone walked off with it. The perpetrator is probably, as I write, wheezing over her hot affair with Henry Miller. And now, I have to go back to the library and admit that I lost, not The Biography of Anais Nin, nor The Life of Anais Nin, but The Erotic Life of Anais Nin. Although the outstanding (in both senses) book will not get cheaper over time, I’ve not been able to bring myself to face down the librarian and admit to it.

How do you get a great title for a book? Stein asks, and hopefully answers. He gives example after example of books that had bad titles until he changed into exciting ones. (Can’t you see him blowing on his fingernails and rubbing them against his shirt to show you how proud of himself he is?)

". . .the primary function of a title is not to show the theme of the story, but to entice the reader."

Stein says that the primary function of a title is not to show the theme of the story, but to entice the reader.

When he tried to find the commonality of the titles of great books such as Tender is the Night, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, A Moveable Feast, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, what he decided was that they all were metaphors, that is, they brought ideas together that wouldn’t ordinarily be linked, which makes them attention grabbers.

Conversely, a good title can inspire a writer’s work. If you’re stuck for a plot, think of a great title and write from that.

Here are questions Steinberg suggests you ask yourself about your title:·

Is it fresh? Does it bring together two things that have never been compared before? If not, can you use the name of your character in a startling context? · Is it so bad that it’s camp and therefore becomes good? The example he gives is of a National Book Award given in 1993 for a book called Garbage. (I think I’ll skip that one.)

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/