My grandmother was very big on things one could do without. There were no salt shakers on her dining room table, no remote controls on her nightstand, no automatic windows in her car, and no exclamation points in her letters. The same logic that brought our family "because there's enough salt in food already, that's why" also brought us the idea that if you said what you meant to say in the first place, the punctuation was superfluous. Parentheses, colons, and most commas also did not find themselves in her good graces. Grandma and F. scott Fitzgerald. They could sit in a minimalist room somewhere, drinking gin and vermouth and judging other people's correspondence.
Punctuation was invented to help us. When not used splicingly, even the innocent little comma can be artful. especially in book titles. Nabokov himself had a thing for the comma (Speak, Memory; King, Queen, Knave). The dreaded exclamation point has also gotten a lot of great title play throughout history (Absalom, Absalom!). of course, the semicolon is a mess and everyone knows it. A semicolon is like having an automatic weapon in the house and shooting yourself by accident. If you don't know how to work it, best to work around it. so: if the comma is harmless, the exclamation point is newly sophisticated, and the semicolon is a little ridiculous, that leaves us with the question of the question mark. The question mark is a book title's last remaining prob-lem child— the toddler of the punctuation family, perpetually shrugging its shoulders. exclamation points may have grown up since my grandmother's day, but it seems question marks have dumbed down. We are no longer asking ourselves Who Will Run the Frog Hospital and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf but who moved our dairy products.
Why Do Men Have Nipples? Are Men Necessary? When Did I Get Like This? Do the Windows Open? I don't know. Please stop badgering me. Maybe the cheese got thrown out the window by some freak with no nipples. Why Is Mommy Crying? Well, you would be, too, if subjected to such verbal heat lamps.
This is not to say that question marks aren't called for at all,much as my grandmother would have liked that. They have been used poignantly and appropriately to title some of our most beloved books. Just not lately. Lately, a question mark in a book title generally takes one of four basic forms:
• Rhetorical ("I crack myself up.")
• Literal ("Read this book and the answer will be yours.")
• sad ("Please help me.")
• Incredulous/Paranoid ("Who sent you? No, really, who?")
When titling my second book, How Did You Get This Number, these implications posed some problems. sure, there is an automatic humor to Tone #1, the rhetorical. And a success as well. Just ask Chelsea Handler (Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea). But frankly, there's a potential unsteadiness to the question mark usage if you're a female writer. Question marks aren't chicky by design, but it's probably not a good idea to introduce a collection of firstperson essays by asking for permission to speak. Who's running this show, anyway? Fair or not, when I imagine a question mark on a book jacket these days, my brain puts it in loopy pink script.
Another danger lay in the exact opposite implication. If my question mark wasn't going to be an overly polite little lady, who was she? Probably someone you wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley. A question mark brings with it an unintentional hostility. By that logic, the title may as well be How the F#@k Did You Get This Number? And who actually says "how did you get this number?" in daily life and means it?
It's just a little curve with a period at the end. It won't be singlehandedly responsible for the downfall of American letters. But it does tap into a larger problem. What makes something funny is not separating yourself from your audience. It's being appalled with them, not at them. Rarely, if ever, have I had the desire to yell at you. Nor have I had the desire to come to your house and stock your bookshelves with pink script. My publicist kindly offered to do battle with corrections pages across this great nation if their arts sections wind up tacking the extra punctuation onto the title. I told her I was prepared for this. Not everyone can be expected to loathe punctuation as my grandmother did or be as dubious of its modern intentions as I am. That's because it was invented to help. It's just that sometimes you want the windows to open automatically. n
Riverhead will publish Sloane Crosley's collection of essays, How Did you Get This Number, next month.