Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls

The life of a title

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Track listing for Kanye West's Waves

So I haven’t heard all of Kanye West’s new album yet—I’m waiting until I can actually download it for real—but I’m excited about what looks to be a major statement from the artist responsible for some of my favorite music of the last decade. Predictably, it was also the target of countless barbs in the weeks leading up to its release, mostly because of what have been portrayed as its constant title changes: it was originally announced as So Help Me God, changed to Swish, made a brief stopover at Waves, and finally settled on The Life of Pablo. And this was all spun as yet another token of West’s flakiness, even from media outlets that have otherwise been staunch advocates of his work. (A typical headline on The A.V. Club was “Today in god, we’re tired: Kanye West announces album title (again).” This was followed a few days later by the site’s rave review of the same album, which traces a familiar pattern of writers snarking at West’s foibles for months, only to fall all over themselves in the rush to declare the result a masterpiece. The only comparable figure who inspires the same disparity in his treatment during the buildup and the reception is Tom Cruise, who, like Kanye, is a born producer who happens to occupy the body of a star.) And there’s a constant temptation for those who cover this kind of thing for a living to draw conclusions from the one scrap of visible information they have, as if the changes in the title were symptoms of some deeper confusion.

Really, though, the shifting title is less a reflection of West’s weirdness, of which we have plenty of evidence elsewhere, than of his stubborn insistence on publicizing even those aspects of the creative process that most others would prefer to keep private. Title changes are a part of any artist’s life, and it’s rare for any work of art to go from conception to completion without a few such transformations along the way: Hemingway famously wrote up fifty potential titles for his Spanish Civil War novel, notably The Undiscovered Country, before finally deciding on For Whom the Bell Tolls. As long as we’re committed to the idea that everything needs a title, we’ll always struggle to find one that adequately represents the work—or at least catalyzes our thoughts about it—while keeping one eye on the market. Each of my novels was originally written and sold with a different title than the one that ended up on its cover, and I’m mostly happy with how it all turned out. (Although I’ll admit that I still think that The Scythian was a better title for the book that wound up being released as Eternal Empire.) And I’m currently going through the same thing again, in full knowledge that whatever title I choose for my next project will probably change before I’m done. I don’t take the task any less seriously, and if anything, I draw comfort from the knowledge that the result will reflect a lot of thought and consideration, and that a title change isn’t necessarily a sign that the process is going wrong. Usually, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Track listing for Kanye West's The Life of Pablo

The difference between a novel and an album by a massive pop star, of course, is that the latter is essentially being developed in plain sight, and any title change is bound to be reported as news. There’s also a tendency, inherited from movie coverage, to see it as evidence of a troubled production. When The Hobbit: There and Back Again was retitled The Battle of the Five Armies, it was framed, credibly enough, as a more accurate reflection of the movie itself, which spins about ten pages of Tolkien into an hour of battle, but it was also perceived as a defensive move in response to the relatively disappointing reception of The Desolation of Smaug. In many cases, nobody wins: All You Need Is Kill was retitled Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release and Live Die Repeat on video, a series of equivocations that only detracted from what tuned out to be a superbly confident and focused movie—which is all the evidence we need that title trouble doesn’t have much correlation, if any, with the quality of the finished product. And occasionally, a studio will force a title change that the artist refuses to acknowledge: Paul Thomas Anderson consistently refers to his first movie as Sydney, rather than Hard Eight, and you can hear a touch of resignation in director Nicholas Meyer’s voice whenever he talks about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (In fact, Meyer’s initial pitch for the title was The Undiscovered Country, which, unlike Hemingway, he eventually got to use.)

But if the finished product is worthwhile, all is forgiven, or forgotten. If I can return for the second time in two days to editor Ralph Rosenblum’s memoir When the Shooting Stops, even as obvious a title as Annie Hall went through its share of incarnations:

[Co-writer Marshall] Brickman came up to the cutting room, and he and Woody [Allen] engaged in one of their title sessions, Marshall spewing forth proposals—Rollercoaster Named Desire, Me and My Goy, It Had to be Jew—with manic glee. This seemed to have little impact on Woody, though, for he remained committed to Anhedonia until the very end. “He first sprung it on me at an early title session,” remembers Brickman. “Arthur Krim, who was the head of United Artists then, walked over to the window and threatened to jump…”

Woody, meanwhile, was adjusting his own thinking, and during the last five screenings, he had me try out a different title each night in my rough-cut speech. The first night it was Anhedonia, and a hundred faces looked at me blankly. The second night it was Anxiety, which roused a few chuckles from devoted Allen fans. Then Anhedonia again. Then Annie and Alvy. And finally Annie Hall, which, thanks to a final burst of good sense, held. It’s hard now to suppose it could ever have been called anything else.

He’s right. And I suspect that we’ll feel the same way about The Life of Pablo before we know it—which won’t stop it from happening again.

Finding the perfect title

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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