Thursday, May 16, 2013

Grinder's Guide: Paratext: Titles

Paratext is something I’ve always been interested in and something often overlooked. Believe it or not, the paratext can be as important as the story.

Paratext is everything around the story that’s not the story itself: titles, epigraphs, dramatis personae, glossary, appendices, review copy, back cover copy, and even maps/interior illustrations can be considered paratext. Today, however, we’ll only be talking about titles.

Let’s get one thing straight: titles are important. Don’t let anyone fool you otherwise, whether it your significant other, an English professor, or that snobby guy at the bookstore, saying “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” because judging a book by its cover is just fine, and judging a cover by its title even more so. Titles set the mood, can draw a potential reader in, lend a bit of intrigue. Titles can be the set-up for a story-long joke, or the final piece of the puzzle, oft overlooked. Titles can be short, such as Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” or long like “Her Scientification, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy” by Jason Sanford. Titles can be simple (Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket”) or complex (Gene Wolfe’s “Storeys from the Old Hotel”). The sheer variety of titles is truly astounding (which beggars the question on why there are so many repeat titles, but that’s another discussion).

Titles serve many functions. At their simplest, titles inform you of the content of the story (see most Ray Bradbury short stories and the A Song of Ice and Fire series). Often they are short, a couple words at the most. When done well, they reflect on the content as well as referencing it (Felix Gilman’s “The Half Made World” does this marvelously). Sometimes they can serve a counterpoint, making you rethink the true meaning of the story (“Pocketsful of Diamond” by Gene Wolfe). At times, however, it seems as if an author is making a statement by using a short title. One word titles often are too self-important, especially if they use a common word (double points if it’s an emotion). Fury, Rapture, Passion, all are one word titles used by many people over time that are just a bit too self-important. In my opinion though, the ultimate disuse of the simple, content-driven title is the list title (“Orb, Sceptre, Throne” by Ian Esslemont). List titles, by themselves, appear lazy. They tell you exactly what you will find between the pages without making any effort to be unique, intriguing, or original. Of course, as soon as an absolute is laid down, counter-examples are given, so let me head you off by mentioning not only one of my favorite titles, but one of my favorite stories period: “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster. The reason this list works where most fail is in its lyricism and reflection on the fractured personality of the narrator and world in which she inhabits.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have complex titles. Complex titles can be long, as in Douglas Adams’s “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul,” or near impenetrable as to their meaning (I’m looking at you Jay Lake). Long titles, however, are showy by nature. Whenever you cross the five word threshold, you’re bringing attention to the title, so it better be damned good and there’d better be a damn good reason for it. Jason Sanford and Cat Valente are two masters of the long title, although even they are not perfect. I do not care at all for “Her Scientification, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy,” nor am I particularly enthused by Valente’s “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” regardless of how brilliant both stories are (extra kudos goes to Valente for the novel based on Sparrow being picked up by Tor). If a long title is going to be used, let it not be used simply as a joke or a content-trigger. As giggly as David Wong’s titles make me, “John Dies at the End” and “This Book is Filled with Spiders,” are towards the more meh end of the titling spectrum. One thing longer titles can do more effectively than shorter titles is bring you in with intrigue. “The City of Saints and Madmen” by Jeff Vandermeer is one the greatest titles ever conceived in my opinion. You have a strange juxtaposition of intriguing factors. If you drop either “Saints” or “Madmen,” the title is still quite good. Combining them is a genius of the highest order.

This post is more of an introduction to the notion of paratext. It’s meant to get you comfortable with the idea. I have much more to say about titling, getting down to levels that look over linguistic devices and syllabic construction, but that’s another post.

For now, why don’t you tell me some of your favorite titles? In a future post, I will laud praise on you for your discerning eye, or kick dirt in your face while I dance on your grave.


  1. A variety of the titles that have caught my eye over the years based on the title alone:

    The Zap Gun, Philip K Dick
    Miserere, Teresa Frohock
    The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
    A Galaxy Called Rome, Barry Malzberg
    Anno Dracula, Kim Newman
    Tea with the Black Dragon, R.A. MacAvoy

  2. Also:

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
    The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
    Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip
    NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
    You Will Know Our Velocity by David Eggars
    This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz