Perhaps because writers and lit lovers are as ubiquitous on twitter as pictures of cats on the internet, there are often some pretty awesome literary hashtags doing the rounds. Since the beginning of this year #lessambitiousbooks has been trending worldwide, and amusing me no end. There have been some absolutely brilliant titles:
- The Adequate Gatsby
- Love in the Time of the Common Cold.
- To Seriously Injure a Mockingbird
- Realistic Expectations (or just, ‘Expectations’)
- Somebody’s Kampf
- Faustus, M.Phil.
- The Twitpic of Dorian Gray
- The Grapes Of Irritation
- Brideshead Redecorated
- A Casual Assembly Of Dunces
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Collapsible Hanging Household Organiser
- The Facebook Friends Karamazov
- The Little Engine That Gave Up
Of course, part of the fun is in recognising the novel itself, and in the little nod to your followers of the wealth of your literary knowledge. But it’s revealing also of the extent to which novels – and certainly the ‘classics’ – have grand, sweeping titles. The hashtag #moreambitiousbooks wouldn’t work, and certainly isn’t as funny, because it’s difficult to make the titles more powerful, authoritative, declarative than they already are. ‘Enormous Expectations’, ‘Deafeningly Loud and Oppressively Close’, ‘The Amazing Gatsby’, ‘Arrogance and Xenophobia’. They simply don’t work.
But it made me think about how crucial a strong title is to a novel’s success, and of how often we judge a book, not – as the cliche would have it – by its cover, but by the words emblazoned across it.
There was a fascinating piece in The Guardian a few years ago about the original titles of some of the all-time literary classics. (A similar post on BuzzFeed is even better as they’ve actually altered the original book jackets with the alternative titles.) Tolstoy’s War and Peace was originally ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’; Lolita was ‘The Kingdom by the Sea’; Pride and Prejudice was ‘First Impressions’; and The Great Gatsby was once ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’.
What is interesting when reading these working titles is how incredibly jarring they feel. Of course, it is our familiarity with their final names that makes these originals feel so disorienting, but I can’t help but wonder how they may have fared without their ultimate titles. Though it’s the same beautiful prose within, ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ simply isn’t as evocative as its final revision. And ‘All’s Well that End’s Well’ (aside from Shakespeare already having taken it) doesn’t exactly scream epic.
As the BuzzFeed post quite rightly notes of the original title of Hitler’s Mein Kampf: ‘I mean, would [we] have taken the author of ‘Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice’ seriously?’ What a different place the world would be. Perhaps that’s a case in itself for #lessambitiousbook(title)s