Judging a book by its cover: The title

Names are important. They shouldn’t be but they are.
In their brilliant book, Freakonomics, US authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner compile top ten lists of children’s names that are most likely to indicate low income backgrounds and low academic achievement. For example, the top five boy’s names that indicate low income and achievement (at the time the book was written are):
1.       Cody
2.       Travis
3.       Brandon
4.       Justin
5.       Tyler
What’s in a name? – Freakonomics
I am, by day, a secondary teacher and it’s a well-recognised if informally recognised phenomena in schools. There are such things as “naughty names”. In a class of thirty UK children I am likely to spend more time managing the behaviour of Liams, Ryans and Callums than any other name. I am deeply unlikely to have issues with a Richard, David or Michael.  And, of course, the “naughty names” I experience now will be different to the naughty names of the past and future. When I was growing up, Wayne, Shane and Kevin were probably the naughtiest names. Probably.
It is obvious that the names don’t cause the child’s bad behaviour. That’s very poor logic. That’s as mad as saying that having lots of books in a house makes a child clever. What is happening is that both the child and the name have a common origin, that is, their parents. Just as highly-educated and supportive parents tend to have lots of books in their houses (and call their sons David, Michael and Richard) so do poorly-educated and apathetic parents tend to give their sons names like Liam, Ryan or Callum. By the way, this has absolutely nothing to do with the ethnic origins of these names. It has far more to do with the kinds of families who pick certain names for their children. And the reason why they pick these names? Fashion. Cultural influences. The names of family members or personal role models.
With books, it’s not much different. The book title does not dictate the book’s contents but the choice of title tells us something, if only a little, about the author and, without a doubt, influences our decision on whether to read the book or not.
I’m deeply unlikely to pick up novels called Mayfair Glitz, My Sister’s Diary, Yummy Mummies Rule OK, or Forbidden Passions. They speak of genres and writing styles that have no appeal to me. Whereas I’ve pick up and read What To Do When Someone Dies, The Dark Side Of The Sun and Magic Kingdom For Sale purely on the strength of the title and have been, by turns, intrigued, thrilled and charmed.
So, when it comes to our own novel, Heide and I ought to pick a name with care. It won’t influence anyone’s reading enjoyment but it will influence whether they give it a go or not.
So what do we go for?
We could go for something simple and unpretentious, e.g.
·         Clovenhoof
·         Mr Clovenhoof
·         Jeremy Clovenhoof
But although these titles are simple and unpretentious, they’re hardly enticing. I’m not sure if this kind of title would make me reach for the book with curiosity. The next option is to use the time-honoured method of stealing a famous saying, quote, film or song title and claiming it as our own.
·         Sympathy for the Devil
·         Better the Devil you know
·         Who prays for Satan?*
·         The Devil’s Party**
We could even twist a pre-existing title or saying to our own ends by omitting or substituting certain words.
·         The Devil Came Down To Sutton (instead of The Devil Came Down To Georgia)
·         The Devil Moves In (instead of The Devil Rides Out)
Heide and I blasphemously experimented with taking hymn titles and replacing the word God or Jesus with Satan e.g.
·         Satan: My Happy Home
·         What a friend we have in Satan (I quite like this one)
·         Satan wants me for a Sunbeam
Or we could just try to encapsulate the story within a title:
·         The Devil Next Door
·         Hell on Earth
But then that just leads us to the ridiculous:
·         The Funny Things That Happened When The Devil Came To Earth And Moved Into A Flat In Sutton Coldfield
Perhaps we’re missing a trick or the possibility of a really cool or clever title. This Wednesday, we’ll be playing index card games with our friends at Birmingham Writers’ Group and maybe their suggests will be much cleverer than ours.
But dear reader, perhaps you have ideas of your own?
*  This comes from a quote by Mark Twain which I think almost sums up our novel’s view of Satan and therefore does appeal to me: “But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?”
** This comes from Blake’s quote about Milton being of the ‘Devil’s party’ without knowing it.
Posted in 2012, Books, Reflections Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
One comment on “Judging a book by its cover: The title
  1. Iain Grant says:

    Suggestions arising from an index card game with Birmingham writers:

    Heaven knows, Mr Clovenhoof

    Satan's Coldfield

    Sutton Bloody Sutton

    The Devil Has All The Worst Tunes

    A Public Hell

    Life and Times of Mr Clovenhoof

    Welcome to Earth, Mr Clovenhoof

    Satan is coming. Look busy.