I mentioned a couple of posts ago how the title of my new book, The Undressing of America, inspired the new direction the book itself has taken, and that's got me thinking about my experiences with book titles. I'd been writing books for over twenty years before I finally came up with a title on my own that actually stayed all the way to publication. Gradually I've realized how much of the soul of a book is held in its title, and how coming up with a title not only requires understanding a book at an even deeper level than just writing it allows (odd as that sounds), but can actually reveal what it's really about.
In 1981, when I was but a young thing, Will Jacobs and I wrote a book to amuse each other, about the supposed efforts of the world's great writers and filmmakers to save Leave It to Beaver from cancellation in the summer of 1963. Mostly it was made up of twenty-five literary parodies, story treatments about the Cleaver family by Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, and people like that, but we also described, in a mock elegiac sort of tone, how despite all their passionate efforts, their beloved sitcom was sacrificed to Mammon by soulless executives. I say "sort of" mock elegiac because, honestly, there was a bit of real elegy going on under our smart-mouthed surface. We really did love Leave It to Beaver, and we were both going through bouts of nostalgia for our suburban childhoods (I was 24, he was 26, and the charm of San Francisco fog and buses was wearing thin). So, in that crypto-elegiac mood, we called the book The Summer of the Beaver.
When Peter Cannon at Crown Publishers wanted to bring the book out, he didn't want elegiac, not even mock. He saw our selling point as being the parodies themselves and our ludicrous claim that these lost literary works had just come to light. Both the Pentagon and the Vallachi papers were still alive in the cultural memory then, so he suggested The Beaver Papers. He also strongly urged cutting our wistful (and long) concluding chapter down to a dry-eyed half page. We grumbled as we agreed, wanting to convince ourselves that we were making a tough compromise, but in our hearts I think we knew he was right. There was a little too much of us in The Summer of the Beaver, the parts of us that weren't very funny. And ever since then I've thought of The Beaver Papers as a book I wrote, even though, technically speaking, I never wrote anything called The Beaver Papers.
Next Will and I wrote a history of superhero comic books (which we were both obsessed with at the time) and wanted to call it The Superheroes. Simple, like. Peter Cannon approved of that one, as did the Crown marketing department. But then we ran into a most unexpected snag: Marvel Comics claimed to have a trademark on the word "superhero," and no one but Marvel could use it in a title, not even for a book about superheroes. We suggested using the common alternate form: The Super Heroes. But DC Comics claimed to have a trademark on the term "super hero," and no one but DC could use it. Apparently a few years before, Marvel and DC, the only large publishers of superhero comics at that time, had decided to follow the example of 15th Century Portugal and Spain and evenly divide, not the world, but the word. Marvel wouldn't complain about DC's use of "super heroes" if DC wouldn't complain about Marvel's use of "superheroes," but they would complain loudly if anyone else tried to use either of them.
Obviously that would never stand up in court. Both versions of the word were in use for decades by all kinds of people before anyone thought of trademarking them, and anyway, can you stop someone from using your trademark when they're writing nonfiction about your product? But the lawyers at DC and Marvel told us we'd be sorry, and no one at Crown wanted to get in an argument with lawyers over the title of a book that everyone knew wasn't going to sell very well. So we agreed, with more sincere grumbling this time, on The Comic Book Heroes.
For eleven years I disliked that title (a quiet sort of dislike—it's too boring to work up any real passion around), but there came a day when I was working on the updated and heavily rewritten edition of the book, writing a passage about the generation of artists and writers who'd struggled through bad working conditions and mediocre pay and a total lack of glory to give the world their creations, and it struck me: the real comic book heroes aren't the guys in the silly suits, they're the guys at the art tables and typewriters. Duh. So I slipped in a sentence to clue the reader in that, of course, that's what we'd always meant by "comic book heroes," and suddenly I was very grateful for the petty legal departments of Marvel and DC Comics.
(I should note that by the time I started writing for DC a few years later, the legal staff seemed to be made up of much more reasonable people. One of them, Maura Healy, is still a good friend. I never asked around, but I assume whatever pursed-lipped, narrow-eyed curmudgeon was in charge in 1984 had moved on. And neither company tries to enforce that trademark anymore. Instead, I understand, they now co-own the form "super-heroes," which no one else would want to use anyway.)
Then I wrote a book that I simply could not title. It was the story of TV situation comedies and how they'd been shaped by and influenced the currents of American life. For a while I tried to come up with something catchy, but I can't even remember what I tried. In the end I sent it out as The Sitcom Story. I would have ended up hating that one as much as The Comic Book Heroes, but this time I wouldn't be able to blame it on anyone else. Fortunately, my editor, Bryan Oettel, liked it even less than I did and suggested we both go off and brainstorm. I don't remember what I came up with, but I know none of them were any good. He plucked a cliché out of sitcom land and suggested Honey I'm Home. I agreed that it was catchy, but I wanted the title to say somehow what the book was about. No, he said: the title is just supposed to be catchy and unique—it's the subtitle where you tell them what it's about. As many books as I'd read, I'd somehow never noticed that. I've been grateful to Bryan ever since.
That did, however, bring me to what has turned out to be one of the great hells of writing for me: subtitles. A hell that I know I'll be facing with my current book, because as much I like The Undressing of America I have no idea what words should appear under it to explain what it's actually about. But it's a very educational hell, and next time I'll post about what it's taught me. Or tried to teach me.