The first time I chalked my license, it was to get into the New York Public Library's rare books room. I was researching the biggest history paper of my teenage career, a tome on 17th-century New England, and I wanted in that room. But I was under 18 and that room didn't want me back. The white chalk I had used to turn my '78 into a '73 rubbed off (the first time I successfully doctored my license was to purchase terrible flavored vodka like a normal person). In the end, my mother had to take notes for me. She came out two hours later with a hand cramp and said, “I am never going in there again.” You see, in addition to stonings and poor waste management, the 17th century was riddled with really long and personal book titles. These titles were like giant mammals, host to other creatures—whole clauses and clunky adjectives—in the folds of their run-on sentences. One title my mother copied down had 44 words in it.
Flash forward to the modern era, where often a short title equates to a big book. Beloved. Underworld. Ulysses. Lolita. For a while it seemed these single, impactful utterances represented our literary successes. But in the past decade, something has happened. Perhaps single-word titles have become too risky. Perhaps, given our whittled attention spans, we all need to be more vividly escorted to the subjects of our books. Or maybe we just talk too much. Either way, it seems inconceivable to explain ourselves with one word. Titles are getting longer and more self-categorized (seasons, clubs, families). Sometimes I think the most marketable novel in the world would be called The Last Season of the Bavarian Blacksmith's Daughter's Club. There are also ironic titles, McSweeney's-inspired teasers meant to intrigue with their quirky specificity or their bleep-worthy language. This mindset arguably provided us with Lucinda Rosenfeld's wonderful What She Saw in Roger Mancuso, Günter Hopstock, Jason Barry Gold, Spitty Clark, Jack Geezo, Humphrey Fung, Claude Duvet, Bruce Bledstone, Kevin McFeeley, Arnold Allen, Pablo Miles, Anonymous 1-4, Nobody 5-8, Neil Schmertz, and Bo Pierce. A title that can be absorbed for the bargain count of... 36 words. Is it any wonder that recent major fiction debuts have been called And Then We Came to the End and Special Topics in Calamity Physics?
Unsurprisingly, there are exceptions: Atonement, Obsession, Betrayal, The Secret (are we selling books or perfume?). But the current throwback to chatty and informal titles ago is undeniable. These massive monikers address the readers directly, asking for simple favors: Name All the Animals, Please Excuse My Daughter and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Then they ask for bigger ones: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?; Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight; and Please Kill Me. Finally, they confess everything: I Love You More Than You Know; You Don't Love Me Yet; I Love You, Beth Cooper. They wear their hearts on their spines. It's the “Hug Me, Damnit” school of book titles. And why not? War and Peace won't hold you at night, now will it?
As for me, I am hardly immune.
My own book is called I Was Told There'd Be Cake, meaning I have inadvertently offered myself up to a lot of prank cake. I should have called it I Was Told There'd Be Rent Control. Anyway, it certainly fits with the extended and frank title trend. But that's not exactly why it's on the cover. First, I thought it would be funny. Second, the personal essayist is supposed to level with the reader as instantly as possible. It's why titles like Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It (I can't be bothered, either!), Don't Get Too Comfortable (okay, I won't!) and I Feel Bad About My Neck (as do I!) work well. The only immediate drawback is that all of these titles, including mine, are a real pain to shout over the noise of a crowded room. Which is okay, as I probably shouldn't be shouting my book title at people anyway. However, if I ever get that little worried feeling that my title is too long, all I have to do is stroll down to the New York Public Library's rare books room and start counting. Six. Right now I'm at six. Maybe 6.5. I have a long way to go.
|Riverhead is publishing Sloane Crosley's debut book of humor essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, this week.|