A jim-dandy issue of The New Yorker last week (starting off, as so many jim-dandy issues do, with an instant-classic happy-neurotic city-dweller cover by Edward Koren) with plenty of goo stuff inside, including a hilarious short story by Paul La Farge in which the main character has a mid-life crisis of a type immediately comprehensible to every condo-owner in Brooklyn and utterly incomprehensible to, for instance, the entire continent of South America:

I’m nearly forty years old and I don’t know anything about Emily Dickinson, or Kate Chopin, or Stendhal, or Hardy, or Fielding! I’ve never read Turgenev!

The issue also features an absorbing piece by Calvin Tomkins on Nicholas Serota and the world of the contemporary art museum. But probably the best thing in this issue, at least from a bookworm’s point of view, is an essay by the legendary John McPhee on his relations with various New Yorker editors over the course of his long career. The piece is especially resonant about mandarin editor-in-chief William Shawn (since the Open Letters Monthly parallels fairly make themselves, I’ll refrain from pointing them out), and I was smiling through most of it – except for one little aside:

Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative – that they can buy a piece,, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writitn, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title.

I’m a big fan of John McPhee, but this is pure, unadulterated hooey.

First and most obviously, a title is certainly not ‘one of the most important parts’ of a piece of writing, any more than a name is one of the most important parts of a person’s identity. But more importantly, editors have every right to change the titles of the pieces in their magazines, for the very simple reason that the title – as it appears in a Table of Contents often hastily scanned by a prospective reader who’s standing at a news-rack minutes before his commuter train pulls out – serves a radically different purpose than the text of the piece. The title is a hook – a shiny lure. Once the prospective reader mentally commits to reading a piece, once that reader takes in the first paragraph and then the second, he is the writer’s responsibility, fine. But getting the reader there, nudging them to make that commitment, is a function of advertising, not rhetoric. It’s an exponent of the whole-effect of a given magazine issue, and as such it falls squarely within the editor’s purview.

And a good thing, too, since most writers stink at advertising – hence, at titles. Oh, gentle reader, when it comes to writer-suggested titles, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would make each particular hair to stand on end, as quills upon the fretful porpentine! And the odd thing is, I’m sure John McPhee could too: surely everybody knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to call his book Trimalchio in West Egg? And then there’s the novel by Tonino Benacquista, forthcoming from Europa Press. It’s English-language title is The Thursday Night Men, and it’s the story of a trio of men who get together and tell sad stories of the women in their lives. The stories are by turns ribald, bittersweet, and scathing, and the narrative focus is far more on emotional tolls of love than the physical dimensions of love-making.

The original title, no doubt conceived and urged by the book’s author?

Homo Erectus.

The prosecution rests.

  • http://michael5000.blogspot.com michael5000

    But, if a title wasn’t one of the most important parts of a piece of writing — which it is, as sure as a person’s name is a key part or his or her identity — then Fitzgerald’s preposterous gaffe would be irrelevant, wouldn’t it? The fact that Trimalchio in West Egg is an obvious disaster just underscores how critical titles are; they’re the conceptual gateway into the text. Catch-22 has been printed with dozens of covers, some pretty good, some pretty bad, and all more or less shiny lures to try to get someone to open the cover. But the switch from Catch-18 is much more significant; Catch-18 isn’t just a less snappy piece of ad copy, it’s the foundation stone of a different, weaker book.

    …having said this, the title issue seems like a much bigger deal for a novel than for a magazine article. But I can understand McPhee’s frustration.

  • Steve Donoghue

    Why Michael5000, you cheeky thing you! Your open defiance of my first point about the importance of titles is charming but hopeless – a person’s name is a key part of their very identity? I’d be amazed if you knew even one person for whom that was true, unless you hang out with the Windsors (and even then, the facts would be against you, since they changed their name in 1917 without at all changing their identity). Fitzgerald’s preposterous gaffe is relevant not because titles are, as you very nicely put it, conceptual gateways into the text (Trimalchio in West Egg would still have been a great novel, after all); it’s relevant in demonstrating that authors very often make a pig’s breakfast of what to call the things they write. If you look at the Table of Contents of the new July issue of Open Letters, for example, you will see some half-dozen good, memorable, snappy titles. In every one of those cases, not only was the title thought up by an editor but the piece’s original title, thought up by the too-involved author, was GHASTLY. You might not agree – but Michael4999 would have! His identity seems more amenable!

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue