The Bookseller’s Pique

July 12, 2008

It’s no secret that publishers often ask authors to change the names of their books in order to fit what their market thinks of as an appropriate title for a book. But those expectations of appropriateness can create some rather humorous bottlenecking as publishers flock to a certain onomastic scheme and then, once they’ve surfeited the public on that trope, abandon it. I’d like to point out the two naming schemes that seem most prevalent today as formulas for the naming of books.

The first is one that I’ll call The Occupation’s Female Relation, and its members fit into the formula suggested by my own meta-title perfectly. We can only speculate on why no nieces or grandmothers seem to be named, but here follows a few examples of this genre:

  • The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
  • The Astronaut’s Wife (There seem to be no fewer than three separate books and a film bearing this title.)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter
  • The Abortionist’s Daughter
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter

A second trend is one I’ll name The Eccentric Conflagration; its titles are a little tougher to pin down, and my Google skills failed me somewhat when I was searching for examples. Nonetheless, all of them concern a grouping whose purpose (or at least name) is somehow, as the following show, triangulated between nonsensical, paradoxical, and quirky —

  • The Tea-Olive Bird-Watching Society
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club
  • The Buenos Aires Broken Heart Club

— all of which exude an almost pained specificity that, even if it doesn’t explicitly include hyphens, begs silently for them to be added in the mind of the reader. (I would add that, in the case of the second title on that list, hyphens would save it from being parsed as concerning a society that bakes or eats both literary and potato peel pies, rather than one that concerns itself with “literary [things]” and “potato peel pie[s].”)

If it seems obvious that there would be trends in the naming of books, it’s somewhat less obvious why — for surely not all of these were altered by the publishers, but were voluntarily named by their authors. If it is a case as simple as the now chronic appendage of the lowercase “i” to the beginning of tech products — a case of hoped-for high sales simply by association with a single best seller — it’s an explanation that is simple in itself, but somewhat more complex and not at all heartening in the explanations for which our specific examples seem to beg. For in the first, we seem to be reverting to a way of referring to women by their relations to (almost certainly) male characters; and I would point out, too, that this is a reversion to, really, pre-novelistic schemes of reference, since novels featuring female characters were previously named, primarily, by eponymous means (Jane Eyre, Pamela), and secondarily, either by a place name (Bleak House, Wuthering Heights) or more abstractly (Sense & Sensibility, The Wings of the Dove) — never by that character’s relation to a male.

And in the case of the books which fall under my meta-title of The Eccentric Conflagration, I can only suggest that the frantic specificity of their titles lies in stark contrast to the realities of a nation in which people cannot seem to gather for anything other than the most officially sanctioned, banally celebratory functions. If their titles are any indication, it seems that these books contain a myth of a non-internet world so packed with clubs and societies that there is room for niches and sub-niches. But isn’t the whole idea of a common naming scheme for popular literature mythological in nature? Doesn’t it appeal to a sort of folk consciousness of some unarticulated desire?

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