In 2007 the Virginia Quarterly Review made a list of ‘the ten most common titles of submissions that we’ve received in the past year’. The words were as follows: remember, smoke, revelation, work, grace, waiting, insomnia, voyeur, butterfly and reunion. The most shocking thing about this list is that none of the words strikes me as a half-decent title for anything: poem, short story, novel, or otherwise.
It must be admitted, however, that providing titles can be harder than peeling misshapen potatoes with a spoon. It is hard enough to come up with something appropriate, let alone good. And even then you can’t be sure that someone hasn’t beaten you to it. Perhaps the perfect title for your story just happens to be ‘War and Peace’. Call it coincidence – and it probably is – but your publishers won’t allow you to get away with it, unless the work in question actually has a chance of competing with Tolstoy (which no work does).
This is, perhaps, an extreme example. The truth is that very many books share the same title and that, on the whole, this doesn’t bother us. Some titles – especially one-word titles – are almost bound to be repeated. Rather that, you might say, that strive for originality at the expense of sense (witness the modern preference for incredibly long titles such How We Foiled The North Belgium Knitting Society’s Tortoise Kidnapper et al). Personally, I enjoy these echoes; these strange and mistaken repetitions across texts of different types. I welcome the delicious fact that many books with the same name turn out to be completely different beasts.
Consider, for instance, two relatively recent novels: Lucio Ganzini’s In Play and Otto Ganzer Breen’s In Play. Both, as their titles suggest, are playful novels (one might even call them experimental). But this is where the similarities end. Ganzini’s experiments are very much about creating space within the text. ‘The modern novel has altogether too much clutter’ he wrote in his recent memoirs Prats, Pricks and Publishing Houses. In Play tries hard to right this perceived wrong, frequently employing empty pages, cut-outs and copious doodles to distract the cluttered reader from the tedious business of words. Ganzer Breen, on the other hand, can’t get enough of words. In fact: he has too many. In Play harkens back to unedited manuscripts in which an indecisive author, instead of choosing one word to describe a situation, creates a small tower of possibilities of the page, like so:
The colonel’s face was a model of dignity/respectability/nobility/idiocy.
What Ganzer Breen does is to bring such indecision into the completed work, constantly forcing his readers to make a choice – or else to except that there is a choice: that the truth, such as it is, remains very much in play.