Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?
It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years' battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And...
When writing my latest novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (I'll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines — plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were alright — yet not quite right. Others were perfect — but not for this book. Many were stinkers.
Then, a flutter went through me. I had it.
I wrote this one down, hung quotation marks on either side, as if to plump it up for scrutiny. The title of my previous novel, The Imperfectionists, had produced a similar effect, redounding within the book itself, accentuating ideas I'd previously only sketched in. That title and this one guided me during subsequent drafts, identifying which lurking details merited more space and which deserved the snip.
Some books start from a title alone, but I'd guess that these are rare. You'd risk drafting a concept rather than a novel. Better to allow the writing to bolt out at first — to be gathered and groomed and artfully tamed later. A name is best attached, I think, only once you know the story well.
However, choosing the title is also a matter of fashion. A glance at 19th-century classics reveals a propensity for naming books after the protagonist: Madame Bovary or Oliver Twist or Anna Karenina. Writers of the 20th century employed poetry: Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, citing Robbie Burns); A Handful of Dust (Waugh, quoting T. S. Eliot); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, lifting from John Donne). Nowadays, one vogue is for the quirky-lyrical — titles such as (and I'm making this up) "The Strange Tenderness of Mr. Plimpsol's Songbook." The clunkers are pretentious and vague; the best are intriguing.
Turning to my novel, it is a book about a bookseller, Tooly Zylberberg, who runs a dusty shop in the Welsh countryside, surrounded by millions of pages but few customers. Her past is odd: she grew up around the world, whisked from one country to another by a peculiar trio of adults. They fed her, taught her — then disappeared. In the years since, she has never understood her own past. Then, someone from the old days messages her, prompting Tooly — a lifelong lover of stories — to piece together the story of herself.
Now, to my title.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has three meanings. It refers to the rise and fall of a person's powers over the course of life, gaining in strength as a kid, reckoning with oneself during adulthood, declining in old age — all stages that key characters confront in this novel. A second meaning is the rise and fall of influences during one's life, be it relatives whom you once overlooked but later admire or ideas that once enchanted you that now seem preposterous. Finally, "great powers" has the traditional sense too, meaning the empires or forces of political change that sway the world — and which characters in this book watch, wondering what role if any they hold in their own times.
In The Imperfectionists, I wrote intimate stories with a backdrop of the clash between the digital age and the old ways. In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, I'm again telling an intimate story at the margins of the world, now with a backdrop of the past quarter-century, from the '80s, when the Cold War was ending; to the turn of the millennium, during the peak of American dominance; to the radical tech and social changes of today. The story leaps back and forth among these three periods, contrasting where we were and where we've ended up.
My editors, very sensibly, asked whether a nonfiction-sounding title risked confusing the reader. And, they noted, it recalled the title of a bestselling 1987 history by Paul Kennedy. What if Web searches caused my novel to vanish behind this 27-year-old volume on world politics? Was the title — no matter how resonant for me — worth the risk?
Even the upstanding George Orwell once changed the name of a novel, "The Last Man in Europe," to his publisher's preference, 1984. Apparently, The Great Gatsby could've ended up as "Trimalchio in West Egg." And Catch-22 started out as "Catch-11," only for the number to be doubled for marketing reasons.
"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."
Wouldn't To Kill a Mockingbird read as sweet if it were "Atticus," as Harper Lee once considered calling it? One grafts names onto objects and people, then experiences the titles as inevitable, just as the name of one's mother (think of yours now) seems to encapsulate her, though she'd have been the same woman were she Hilda or April or Millie.
But no! Your mother was never Hilda or April or Millie — she couldn't have been any name but her own! A book title can feel as indelible.
Nevertheless, upon hearing my editors' concerns, I turned to my original page of possible titles and reconsidered each in turn. I even mocked-up book jackets with alternatives, to see how they looked.
None other felt right. When people read this novel, I hope some might contemplate its name, perhaps discuss it with friends, possibly perceive extra shades of meaning because this is The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and nothing else.
So, I stuck with it. It just seemed like the title. And now it is.