Tuesday, 13 August 2013

What's in a name?

by Harry Harris
Set yourself a challenge – think of your favourite novel, one you know like the back of your hand, one that maybe you’ve read a couple of times, have picked apart and put back together. One that you would give to someone important and go: “Read this.” Got one? Okay, try and imagine it with a different title. A nigh-on impossible task, but fascinating nonetheless. How does a title of a piece of writing impact how you interpret that piece of writing?

Titles seem rather innocuous at first. As a writer, they’re often the launch pad, a match to a keg of gunpowder that explodes into devilish prose and immersive dialogue. For the longest time I carried an idea with me, a song loosely based on an old Welsh bloke I used to work with who told me stories of when he worked at Graceland and owned Elvis bars all over the world. That was the germ of an idea that took many forms, but it wasn’t until I came up with the title 'The Day I Met The King' that the story of the song began to take shape. Conversely I wrote a song not too long ago that I think is okay, and I think is finished, but the only title I can think of at the moment is 'Letters', which just kinda blows. It won’t see the light of day until that’s remedied.

A nice way to imagine titles are as frames – in that, they instruct you how to look at something. Herman Melville named the greatest novel in the English Language Moby Dick; or, The Whale, and yet the titular character is very much present by his absence in the novel itself, the narrative instead focusing on the narrator Ishmael, the psychotic Captain Ahab, the deliriously entertaining Queequeg. Yet, despite the whale never appearing until deep into the book, the title literally hangs over every page, mirroring the struggle within the narrative. Similarly, the balance of the title is directly reflective of the way Melville will occasionally move away from the narrative entirely to just describe the behaviour of whales – some of the most beautiful passages of prose in the book. So, with that title, Melville is pointing us in two different directions, setting the course for the novel without us even opening the page.

Then there are the titles that are perhaps more elusive, more puzzling, ones that don’t seem to directly reference anything in the novel, the ones that make you keep your eyes peeled for something hiding between the lines. Carson McCullers is wonderful in this regard – I’m currently reading her short novel Reflections In A Golden Eye, which so far is a typically melancholy, intimate story of the goings on within an army barracks. There’s a beautiful passage in which McCullers talks of a man falling asleep imagining a great bird coming to land on his chest, the golden eye of the title being the eye of the bird, so, the title line is never said, but in that moment the reader gains a new sense of clarity, and it informs the way in which we view that character and indeed the rest of the story.

Without getting all “death of the author” on you, what a good title can really do is empower the reader to interpret the story in his or her own way, which is the most wonderful thing about writing any kind of story. Nothing belongs to you. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, and you’ve got to let it do its own thing, sometimes it comes back to you in a way that you never expected. But that doesn’t mean you can’t point people in the direction you want them to go in. Next time you finish a story, or a poem, or a song, think about what you want people to get out of the story, the character you think is most interesting or the tone you want to strike. Give it three titles. Give those three stories to three different people and see how their reactions differ. Which reaction most chimes with what you wanted? Call it that.