The curse of the silly book titles
Friday, 18 May 2012

The curse of the silly book titles

Just why are book titles getting ever longer and dafter, asks Jon Canter (whose new book is simply called Worth)

In 1984, The Book Of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, And Its Role In The World Today, won the Diagram Prize, awarded for the Oddest Book Title Of The Year. In 2012, it wouldn’t even make the long list. There’s nothing odd about immortalising a foodstuff, not since Cod: A Biography Of The Fish That Changed The World became a swimaway bestseller. Nor is there anything curious – as in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time – about a book whose title goes on a bit, then goes on a bit more. The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It, anyone? How about Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted A Dream, Shattered Global Markets And Unleashed A Catastrophe? No? Then maybe I can interest madam in When All Our Days Are Numbered Marching Bands Will Fill the Streets & We Will Not Hear Them Because We Will Be Upstairs In The Clouds? We will be upstairs in the clouds, staring at the ultimate: a title that’s longer than the book.

Let me declare an interest. I have a new novel coming out in paperback this summer, with the embarrassingly short title of Worth. The last time I had lunch with my publisher, she took me to McDonald’s. I paid. Afterwards, we walked back to her office, where she told me that selling books was virtually impossible in today’s overcrowded marketplace. At least, I think that’s what she said. I couldn’t really hear. She had her back to me and was standing on a window ledge.

So, what do you do in a crowded marketplace? You shout. You shout louder and longer than the man with the stall next to yours. Hence the craze for bizarre and extended titles. If he’s shouting ‘Strawberries!’, you’d better shout, ‘Strawberries And Raspberries And Blueberries And Blackberries: The Soft Fruits That Changed The World!’ My favourite is The Stolen Prince: Gannibal, Adopted Son Of Peter The Great, Great-Grandfather Of Alexander Pushkin, And Europe’s First Black Intellectual. That title tells you everything. That title sells you everything. What more could a title do to make you want a book? It’s only a shame that Gannibal wasn’t Adopted Son Of Peter The Great, Great-Grandfather Of Alexander Pushkin, Europe’s First Black Intellectual, The Man Who Invented Leggings.

It’s as if authors are saying to readers: yes, you can judge my book by its cover. Love my attention-seeking title, which tells you all you need to know! Love the celebrity quote above the title, because it makes me a celebrity by proxy! Stephen Fry’s read my book! (That reminds me: I’ve known Stephen Fry, on and off, for 25 years. I’m not saying he’s read my book. But don’t you think ‘I’ve known the author, on and off, for years – Stephen Fry’, might look good on the cover?) And if we authors can’t get a celebrity quote, then we’ll thank a celebrity in the acknowledgements. If nothing else, that celebrity will feel obliged to buy our book. It’s hard to read your name in a list of acknowledgements and not feel flattered into parting with your cash. In fact, for my next book, I might acknowledge – space permitting – every person in the London phone directory. It’s true. I couldn’t have written the book without their support, encouragement, patience, love and endless cups of tea.

Finally, shamefully, we come to the author photo, the last refuge of any attention-seeking writer. Do you remember those innocent times when commercial fiction – The Bible, say – had no author photos at all? As a weather-beaten, middle-aged man, I’m no Nigella Lawson. (Come to think of it, I’m not even her gorgeous, pouting dad.) So I chose to be photographed with my dog. Who can resist a dog?

So, if you’re kind enough to buy my book, I hope you enjoy it. To remind you, it’s called Worth: A Comic Novel By An On-Off Friend Of Stephen Fry, With A Photo Of A Three-Year-Old Lurcher.

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