Saturday, 14 March 2015

Guardian Books: Misleading Book Titles




Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian’s book pages – it’s a look at books that I consider to have misleading titles (others may disagree). I was hoping for lots of good suggestions from the comments on the Guardian website, and there were some very different responses there. My favourite, without a doubt, was from WelshPaul and said this:
Great Expectations wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be.
I’m still laughing.

Anyway, this is how the article began:


As debates swirl around the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird prequel, it’s easy to forget the strangeness of those familiar titles. But misleading, mysterious and downright secretive titles are nothing new.



Stoner 1
Stoner -  miserable but not drugged


Sometimes, an author is overtaken by time. When John Williams’s Stoner became a cult classic in 2013, many readers thought they were picking up something like William Burroughs’s Junkie. But Williams’s protagonist, William Stoner, is completely drug-free and living out a low-key life on a university campus in the US midwest. The use of “stoner” to refer to a marijuana user seems to have developed in the 1970s; Williams published his book in 1965.

















When it comes to titling a book, some authors look for a double meaning. Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope asks the reader to decide whether he suggests the novel does offer some hope, or means quite the opposite: “Some hope of that happening!”
 


Dud Avocado Slip
The Dud Avocado – not about below-standard foodstuffs
 
Lady Baltimore cake


The Lady Baltimore – not about the titled heroine of a romantic comedy
 



















Other titles are deliberately vague, such as JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip. Near the end of this 1978 novel, the third in Farrell’s British colonial trilogy, the Singapore grip is alleged to be a sexual manoeuvre, but the author implies it can mean many things. (The book is now largely forgotten, except by journalists in search of a gripping headline.) [NB Readers BTL at the Guardian argued that he is not forgotten, and I'd be delighted if they're right.]


 

 
I am confidently expecting blog readers to come up with some excellent misleading titles – perhaps from detective fiction? Please comment below.













30 comments:

  1. Great article, Moira, and an absolutely fascinating topic! There are some titles (e.g. Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie that are a little enigmatic. And I sometimes think that can add to a book's appeal. Lots to think about here, for which thanks.

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    1. That's a brilliant example, thanks Margot. Some titles can make you work to find out what they mean, and that can add to the enjoyment...

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  2. J. G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy's still in print, so he's certainly not forgotten.
    Actually, this blog is misleadingly titled when it comes to this post, as your attempts to drag in pictures of clothes (and cakes) show.

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    1. I would love to think he isn't - I just think he isn't mentioned very much these days. But plenty of Guardian readers came to tell me I was wrong.
      Guilty as charged re blog content - I try to keep up a high percentage of solid clothes entries, so that the blog police can't get to me!

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  3. Moira: A Murder of Crows by David Rotenberg uses the word murder in the title with a meaning I had never known until I read the book.

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    1. That's a very intriguing contribution - thanks Bill!

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  4. I have one in the tubs - PURPLE JESUS, I don't actually think......

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    1. A nice addition to the list, thanks Col. It seems *likely* that it's not a literal title....

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  5. 'How Nell Scored' was not about football or sexual conquest... (http://bookforgetter.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/not-really-review-how-nell-scored.html)

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    1. Excellent Vicki. I was surprised to see 50s date, but is it likely that was a reprint of an older story? Bessie Marchant sounds familiar, and, as you say, proIific - I must have read something by her along the line. But 'I read this so you don't have to' is a service I feel I often offer, and I feel you do too in this case. And others.

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    2. Annoyingly I can't find it on my shelf at the moment - I think it's a temporary book blindness thing - but when I do I shall check for date giveaways. I can find Biggles Takes it Rough...

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    3. When I'm a grown-up, that won't make me laugh inordinately. So no danger for a while.

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  6. No suggestions from me, Moira. Titles are something that intrigue me. Some that seem to be generic... I want to know why they were chosen. Sometimes they are explained in the book but I miss the reference. A book I finished toward the end of February is titled Too Late to Die (Bill Crider) and I have not figured out what that means.

    Very nice article in the Guardian. Although many of the titles there I am not familiar with, being so focused on mysteries.

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    1. I am fascinated by them - and I wasn't trying to say misleading or ambiguous titles were necessarily wrong: just to take a look at the range on offer. There are some authors that I really like, but their titles over a series don't define each book - I sometimes feel the title could apply to any of their books. Not helpful! Did you ever read Robert Goddard? - his titles are like that.

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    2. I just like a title to have a reference to the book, and I think the book cover should too, in some way. On the other hand I hate it when a cover has a spoiler (although to be honest I don't usually notice that until I have finished the book). Keeping in mind that authors have often had no say in title or cover, I should not quibble.

      RE Goddard, I have not read Goddard but I have a few of his books to try. He has a couple of short series I would like to try, but haven't.

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    3. I used to read all Goddard books (though have lost track now), and loved them, but they had such unhelpful titles. I met him once at a launch party, and he told me how very very carefully he chose his titles, and I didn't have the heart to tell him my criticisms...

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  7. Sebald's 'The Rings of Saturn', Magnus Mills 'All Quiet on the Orient Express' and 'The Shipping News' by E Annie Proulx. I love all these books, and the ambiguity of the titles actually seem to add to their joy...

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    1. Yes, good ones, and yes - as I say above to Tracy - I am by no means condemning ambiguity. And there can be something very satisfying about working out or realizing what a title means. Meanwhile I love Sebald's writing, and revere that book, but I'm still not completely sure I know why it's called that. I don't find the epigraph helpful.

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  8. Daniel Milford-Cottam15 March 2015 at 11:22

    These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. When you know why, and also that it's a quote, it is explained but without that knowledge it's hard to see how it relates to the book.

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    1. I'm not sure that I've ever known why it's called that, even though it would have been in my top3 books when I was a teenager, and I have read it many times over.

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    2. Daniel Milford-Cottam15 March 2015 at 15:53

      It's from this poem: http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/epilogue-eighteenth-century-vignettes

      Supposedly it's because the cast are much the same characters as her first book "The Black Moth" but with different names (or shades).

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    3. Well I'm pretty certain I didn't EVER know that (it's the kind of thing that was a lot harder to look up in those pre-Internet days) and it still doesn't seem the perfect title. Wasn't she quite a beginner author? Weren't her publishers saying 'Can't we call it Monseigneur and the Urchin', or 'Leon/Leonie' or 'The Devil and the Redhead'?

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    4. The poem is quoted at the beginning of some of the editions of the book - the hard cover edition, and in at least one of the recent re-issues - but I don't think it's ever referenced in a lot of the paperbacks. It's a great poem for the book. I think she was quite well established by the time she wrote These Old Shades - she'd already written several novels, but Shades was pretty much her Roger Ackroyd.

      But yes. It is pretty much one of those "What the heck...?" titles.

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    5. Not in my ancient Pan paperback. I did used to wonder...
      I just watched a bit of Poldark last night, and though very different in most ways, parts of the setup were surprisingly similar.
      I've been meaning to do These Old Shades sometime, particularly because I read another old historical romance with quite a lot of points of similarity, and I wanted to compare the two. You've never heard that Heyer built on another's foundations with this particular one....?

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    6. I have not, but of course, These Old Shades started out as a continuation of The Black Moth, with Avon as a redemption of Andover. However, as the tone of the book was so different (and less full on melodramatic) than TBM, it was decided to change the names of the characters slightly.

      To be fair, I think a lot of Heyer's early books (such as Shades, Masqueraders, Moth, etc,) are bound to have derivative elements as she was still finding her voice and getting used to it, but Shades is when things really, IMO, began finding the right path for her.

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    7. Yes, it moved her in the right direction didn't it? Now I'm looking forward to re-reading it, as well as the similar book....

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  9. How about clever (non)spoiler titles for mysteries – it’s only when you’ve finished the book and discovered the solution that you see that the title named the key to the mystery.

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    1. That sounds brilliant - do you think you can't give examples because of spoilers? I'm frantically trying to think of any.

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  10. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I have a vague memory that this book could be considered an example: ISBN 0099437317.

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    1. I can't remember enough about it, I will have to get it down. But anyway I really enjoyed the tension of entering the ISBN number and not knowing what was going to come up, life should contain more of that!
      There is a crime book which has a long quotation as a kind of epigraph. When you finish the book, you find out that there is something staring you in the face about it - very cheeky and clever!

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