Posts Tagged ‘The Name of the Rose’
A few days ago, an interviewer asked me to describe what I saw as my target audience. In response, I fell back on the answer that writers tend to give in such situations: I said that I write the kinds of books I’d like to read. In both literary and popular fiction, I’m drawn to layered, fairly complicated books with a lot of detail and information, and these are inevitably the novels I’ve found myself writing as well. They’re emphatically books for grownups, with occasional adult situations—so it might seem strange, then, for me to confess that my ideal reader, if I’m being truly honest with myself, isn’t a grownup at all. In terms of which reader would give me the most satisfaction, I’d say that it’s a kid of twelve or so, a little too smart for the books at his or her grade level, who isn’t quite ready for adult fiction, but stumbles across my books by accident. It may seem unlikely, but it’s happened at least a few times. And whenever I hear about it, I get very happy.
That said, I’d never try to write a book geared specifically toward children. (Well, “never” is a big word, and I can’t rule anything out for the future, but it isn’t currently on my radar.) Rather, I’d like my novels to be read by kids for whom they’re not entirely appropriate. In my own case, my life was shaped forever by the first adult novels I read: I burned through most of the approved books in my grade school classroom in short order, and moved on to Orwell, King, and Eco. These books were considerably above my own reading level, but I’m glad that nobody warned me away from them. That’s why I’m simultaneously envious and somewhat concerned for kids today, who have entire bookstore sections devoted to young adult literature, which are pitched a little too directly at their interests and age group. These books fill an important need. But I’m still glad that my own limited options forced me to move more or less directly from The Headless Cupid to The Name of the Rose.
In short, I was telling the truth when I said that I write for myself, but it’s really for a version of me that was at its best when I was ten or eleven years old. For most of grade school and middle school, I read voraciously and soaked up information like a sponge: as I recently told my wife, I sometimes suspect that most of what I know was acquired between the ages of eight and thirteen. I read a lot of junk, of course, but also novels that stayed with me. And I read them at a time when I was likely to take them for granted. Looking back at the works of art I enjoyed the most, it’s striking how long it took me to realize how deeply strange Foucault’s Pendulum or Blue Velvet really were. And although there’s a downside to skipping over the intermediate stages—you end up with a somewhat skewed picture of the possibilities of art as a whole—there’s no denying that I owe a lot of the person I eventually became to reading books and watching movies that no responsible adult would have recommended to me at the time.
Not coincidentally, this was also the moment when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Becoming a novelist is really a way of extending my childhood, when I wanted to know something about everything and made up stories about the world without even trying. You can’t always write with a child’s eye, of course, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things since then about craft. But the example is still one that haunts me, and many of the choices I’ve made in the following decades were with eye to what that kid would have wanted. I try to write stories that I think he would like—which, again, doesn’t mean writing for his age level—and I do my best to shape my life, to the extent that I can, into something that lives up to his expectations. I haven’t always been true to him, and there have been years on end when he would have been surprised, and possibly disappointed, by how I was spending my time. But he’s still the best guide I have to what I want to be when I grow up.
There are two kinds of titles—two grades, two orders. The first kind of title decides on a name for something that is already there. The second kind of title is present all along; it lives and breathes, or it tries, on every page.
—Martin Amis, London Fields
If you’re tearing out your hair trying to find the perfect title for a novel or short story, take comfort: you’re not alone. Hemingway considered dozens of potential titles after finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls, narrowly rejecting The Undiscovered Country, much to Nicholas Meyer’s relief. Umberto Eco wanted to call his most famous novel Adso of Melk or The Abbey of the Crime. Martin Amis claims to have weighed the titles Millennium, The Murderee, and Time’s Arrow, the last of which he later repurposed, before finally deciding on London Fields. Similarly, Cameron Crowe almost called his ’70s rock movie Vanilla Sky, tried unsuccessfully to convince the studio to let him go with Untitled, and finally settled on Almost Famous—which is proof that the process doesn’t always work as it should.
When you’re searching for a title, the obvious first step, which I’ve often neglected myself, is to ask what the novel is trying to tell you. At its best, a title is a sly expression of the novel’s theme, but indirect, and open to more than one interpretation, which is something you can’t accomplish without looking hard at the story itself. Last week, when I was asked to come up with a new title for my second novel (which had already been called Midrash, Merkabah, and House of Passages), it took me days of frantic brainstorming before I asked myself one simple question: what is the story about? In my case, the novel—while naturally covering a lot of other ground—is primarily about the problem of living in a world in which God has fallen silent. From there, I was led into the theme of spiritual exile, and at that point, the perfect title was just around the corner.
At the time, though, I didn’t know this. Instead, I pushed ahead with my earlier strategy: casting about wildly in all directions. I was mildly obsessed with the multiple meanings of the word passage, which could evoke a section in a book, a way through a house or mountain range, or a ritual moment in one’s life. For a long time, then, my titles were variations on The Secret Passage or The Silent Passage. I went through the entire thesaurus, looking for potential adjectives, and wrote down interesting words from the books on my shelves, from lists of great thrillers, even from the IMDb top 250. Some of the results, which I jotted down in no particular order, can be seen on this page. But it wasn’t until I let go of the precious word passage, and allowed myself to look at other possibilities, that I was able to break out of my rut.
Looking back, I can see that I went about the process all wrong, and next time, I hope to do better. Still, if you’re as desperate as I was, these seem like three decent steps to follow:
- Go carefully through your novel, either in print or in your head, and pick out a handful of words and phrases that seem expressive of the story’s primary theme.
- Cast your net wide, looking at every source you can find—books of quotations, poetry, the titles of other books or movies—looking for words that strike you as meaningful, resonant, or simply interesting. Don’t overthink it too much: just write everything down. For a novel, it isn’t too much to spend an entire day on this stage.
- Finally, relax, look at the lists you’ve developed, and see what happens. Don’t force it. Sooner or later, some combination of words, or even a single word, will seem just right—but only if you’ve abandoned your preconceptions about what your title should be.
In my own case, this was exactly what happened. Keeping the concept of exile in mind, I went haphazardly through my other lists until I saw, near the top of the page, the word city. Within a few seconds, I knew that I had my title—even if it took a day or two and several emails with my editor before the change was official. Whether it’s the best title for this novel, or even a good title, I can’t say. And a great title doesn’t always mean a good book, or vice versa. But for all the hard work and frustration it took to get here, I’m very glad that this novel will be called City of Exiles.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Writers, we like to believe, are drawn to their craft in order to express themselves, but in most cases, the urge to write a novel comes long before any sense of what the story will actually be about. Even the greatest works of art, which seem inevitable now, were often the result of a lengthy selection process. Milton, we’re told, drew up a list of nearly one hundred possible subjects for an epic poem, including the Arthur legend and various topics from British history, before finally deciding on Paradise Lost. This systematic search for a theme, working from the top down, is one way of finding a story; but for most of us, when the time comes to choose a subject, it often makes more sense to work from the bottom up, so that we arrive at our “central” theme almost by accident.
At first glance, this seems to contradict one of the most common assumptions about writing fiction, which is that the subject of a novel must be of great personal importance to the writer himself. In my experience, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, I’d advise most writers not to choose a deeply felt or meaningful subject, especially for a first novel, because it’s hard to be objective about it. The best writing, I’m convinced, is the product of detachment as much as deep emotional engagement, and of the two, detachment is probably the more valuable quality. Which isn’t to say that you should choose a subject to which you’re utterly indifferent—after all, it’s probably going to consume a year or more of your time. But it’s better to tether your emotional involvement to a small, even invisible corner of the novel, and let the main theme emerge from there.
The history of literature is filled with books where the large, obvious elements of the story—the ones that readers assume must have engaged the writer’s interest in the first place—were incidental or secondary to the author’s original intentions. The Stand began as a novel about the Patty Hearst case. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that Nabokov invented the vast alternate universe of Ada, which takes place in a parallel world called Antiterra, mostly so he could have his characters indifferently speak in English, Russian, and French. Umberto Eco has written at length about how important elements of The Name of the Rose, including its location, themes, and historical setting, arose from specific requirements of the plot, not the other way around. And in film, Paul Thomas Anderson once set out to make a small movie about a woman in Los Angeles, which grew from that seed, character by character, until it became Magnolia.
My own experience tells me that it’s very common, and possibly preferable, to stumble backwards into the subject of a long novel. When I first began researching The Icon Thief, it was only with the vague intention of writing a book about the New York art world, with overtones of conspiracy and information overload. A passing reference in an article about art collecting, which noted that recent sales were being driven by Russian money, made me think that Russia might be a good backdrop for the story I had in mind. The result, rather to my surprise, has been a sequence of two novels, and possibly a third, in which Russian history and politics has been hugely important, to the point where it will probably end up consuming four or more years of my life. A reader might think that I was drawn to the subject by an existing fascination with Russia, when, in fact, the reverse was true: I just sort of stumbled into it. And I’m very glad I did. Because in Russia, I guess, the mighty theme chooses you.
When I wrote The Name of the Rose, I spent a full year, if I remember correctly, without writing a line…Instead I read, did drawings and diagrams, invented a world. This world had to be as precise as possible, so that I could move around in it with total confidence. For The Name of the Rose I drew hundreds of labyrinths and plans of abbeys, basing mine on other drawings and places I visited, because I needed everything to work well, I needed to know how long it would take two characters in conversation to go from one place to another. And this also dictated the length of the dialogues.
If in a novel I had to write “while the train stopped at Modena station, he quickly got out and bought the newspaper,” I could not do so unless I had been to Modena and had checked whether the train stops there long enough, and how far the newspaper is from the platform (and this would be true even if the train had to stop at Innisfree). All this may have little to do with the development of the story (I imagine), but if I did not do this, I could not tell the tale.
[Umberto] Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.
Perhaps because I just saw Sneakers again, I’ve been playing a lot with anagrams, especially for the titles of my own novels. Kamera, may it rest in peace, never had much of an anagram to its credit (A Maker is the best I could do), but one of the nice things about The Icon Thief is that its title provides a secret clue to the debt I owe one of my favorite writers. Hint: Eco thief.
Foucault’s Pendulum, by the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, is probably the novel, for better or worse, that has influenced me more than any other. I say “for better or worse” because it’s far from clear that its influence has been a good thing. I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, along with The Name of the Rose, when I was thirteen years old, which was just the right age for me to be completely blown away by Eco’s intelligence, ingenuity, erudition, and above all his way of engaging a world of ideas through the mystery and conspiracy genres. When I was a teenager—and this hasn’t changed much—I wanted to know something about everything, and Eco, more than any other author I had read up to that point, had seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book. (It’s only as I’m writing this now that it strikes me as appropriate that his translator is named William Weaver.)
The trouble, of course, is that the vision of the world expressed in Foucault’s Pendulum isn’t nearly as complete as I had once believed. There are no truly persuasive characters in the novel—merely vehicles for astonishing conversations, which, as Salman Rushdie points out, are “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” For Eco, it’s idea, idea, idea, which is great when you’re thirteen and craving intellectual structures, even satirical ones, but not so much when you’re thirty and trying to write real novels. It wasn’t until a year or two later, when I first began to read John Fowles, that I began to see how massive erudition could be conjoined with genuine plots, characters, prose, and formal invention. But the damage had already been done. For the rest of my life, I’d be more comfortable writing about ideas than human beings, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to move gingerly in the other direction.
And yet even that isn’t the whole truth. The fact remains that Foucault’s Pendulum has given me more pleasure than just about any other novel. My original copy, which still sits on my bookshelf, is flaking and falling apart, but if there were a fire in my apartment right now, it’s one of the first ten things I would save from the flames. Eco turned me on to Borges (his master), the cabalists, and The Golden Bough. The Icon Thief, with its elaborate verbal conspiracies, would be unthinkable without his influence. And Eco himself remains the perfect intellectual. In some ways, I still wish I’d discovered him after Fowles—my entire inner life, not to mention my writing, would have been immeasurably different as a result. But it’s also possible that Eco simply encouraged an artistic tendency that was already there, and showed me its greatest possible realization, as well as its limitations. I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond him. But perhaps, very gradually, I can become something else.
For any writer who has ever despaired over finding just the right title for a novel or story, take heart: even the very best authors can’t figure it out. Borges, for one, likes to point out that the titles of nearly all the world’s great books are pretty bad:
Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.
From among my own favorites, I need only mention In Search of Lost Time—the greatest novel ever written, as well as perhaps the most embarrassing title—and any of Updike’s Rabbit or Bech books. (Rabbit Redux may be the ugliest title I’ve ever seen, although there are plenty of competitors, including Bech: A Book.) There are, of course, exceptions: Gravity’s Rainbow is hard to beat for a title that is beautiful, relevant, and evocative. Other good ones: Pale Fire, House of Leaves, The Name of the Rose (which the author cheerfully admits was meant to be meaningless). But in general, it’s safe to say that most great books have terrible titles.
I’m not even that fond of my own titles, possibly because I’ve spent way too much time staring at them on the first pages of recalcitrant Word documents. Kamera was never called anything else, even before I had a plot, although it was initially spelled Camera, inspired in part by an R.E.M. song. (The alternative spelling is the result of a complicated triple pun that I can’t explain without spoiling a plot point.) By contrast, Midrash, the tentative title of my second novel, took me forever to come up with, and may still end up being changed. (If the title seems cryptic now, consider yourself lucky: I originally wanted to call the novel Merkabah, which almost gave my agent a heart attack.)
As you can see, I’m fond of cryptic one-word titles, although I’m aware that they don’t necessarily sell the novel. (In any case, I’m not sure if any title can really “sell” a novel at all—unless we’re talking about something like The Nanny Diaries.) The best titles, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t advertisements for the book so much as cryptograms, coded messages on which the reader is invited to project his or her own interpretations. The more opaque, or even meaningless, the better. Which may be why my own favorite title for any novel is The Information, by Martin Amis, which is about as cryptic as it gets. (Too bad the novel itself isn’t very good. But perhaps that was inevitable.)