The Millions' Bill Morris may wax poetic on one-word book titles, but I don't love 'em. Irvine Welsh triumphed with his drug-fueled, dialectically impenetrable debut Trainspotting. But then the one-worders kept coming, like a never-ending belch, from Filth and Glue to Crime and the spanking new Skagboys (available to us Yanks in mid-September).
Why? Morris notes “at their best, one-word titles distil content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind.” This suits Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk's Snow, whose austere title foregrounds its melange of political discussions and cultural tensions in a northeast Turkish town. By Morris' reckoning, Snow might be filed under “Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere” or “One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences” (a blizzard shuts down the city, sparking dialogues between the narrator and various revolutionaries that nudge the plot to full throttle).
A quick scan of my bookshelves yields another category: made-up words. Jam several novel-related concepts into one tasty idiom, linguistics be damned. Cyberpunk is notorious for this, though I give props to William Gibson's Neuromancer. It's a perfect amalgam for protagonist Case's virtual-reality hackings and...well, the book is totally romantic. Not just razorgirl Molly Millions, but the grimy, metallic, neon future itself. Tokyo on steroids.
Franz Kafka's Amerika deftly encapsulates a young European emigrant's warped stateside wanderings by distorting the title's spelling. This was actually literary executor Max Brod's doing: the working title was Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared). Kafka's other novels, The Trialand The Castle, require their definite articles: the former personalizes Josef K's prosecution and subsequent tribulations—his “trial”—while the latter makes that inaccessible fortress physical to the alienated land surveyor.
This grave importance of “the” and “and” prevents further whittlings down of other titles. I might shorten Fyodor Dostoevsky's final classic The Brothers Karamazov to simply Karamazov, considering the notoriety of that name. As Makarov explains early on: “The whole question of you Karamazovs comes down to this: you're sensualists, money-grubbers, and holy fools!” But Crime and Punishment requires that “and”, balancing cause and effect. LikewiseThe Idiot, as excising that “the” might cast it the way of habitual singularizer Chuck Palahniuk (see: Choke, Rant, Pygmy et al.).
Fine. One-word titles can work, but something must be said for wordy ones. Isn't there charm within Douglas Adams' Britishly prolix The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and—my personal favorite—The Restaurant at the End of the Universe? Even the briefest, Mostly Harmless, requires both words for the Guide's cheeky description of Earth. In this sense, Adams' debut “could” be truncated to The Guide, but that pesky “the” is mandatory. It's not justany guide, after all.
Image: courtesy the author