Quick: What do the following upcoming films and television shows all have in common?
If you said they all feature poster art suitable for the Louvre, you’re wrong. And you’re blind.
If you said they all feature A-list talent whose work you never miss, well . . . I don’t quite know what to say about that. Though the expression “get a life” does spring to mind. (Taylor Lautner??)
If, however, you said all four are burdened by an incredibly unimaginative and dumb-as-a-stick title, you nailed it. And therein lies the tale of this Murderati post.
Several months ago on my own blog, I wrote a post describing how much it mystifies me when creative people consciously decide to attach a one-word, generic title to something they’ve spent months, sometimes years to produce. This is what I wrote in part:
“Now, I know not every writer cares to spend a thousand sleepless nights trying to come up with a title for their book or film that’s as fresh and original as it is memorable. It’s a pain in the ass process and, sometimes, it hardly seems worth the effort. . .
“But here’s where I’m coming from with all this: A writer busts his ass for months, maybe even years, to write a novel or a screenplay. He puts his heart and soul into the work, trying with all he’s got to make it something special, something different, something he and he alone could have written.
“After all that, why on earth would he want to give the work a generic, overused, blatantly obvious title that anybody with a fifth-grade education could have come up with?
“I don’t get it.”
I was careful to point out in that post that this sort of thing happens far more often in the realms of film and television because the creative process in Hollywood, as Alex and Stephen know far better than I, is almost designed to produce something ridiculously simplistic at every turn, so as not to confuse our feeble minds when it comes time to turn on our TV or buy a ticket at the box office:
“Hollywood has a long tradition of treating the movie-going public like a herd of mindless cows that would forget how to chew cud if you gave them anything other than grass to think about. And its penchant for dumbing down titles to their most obvious and uninspiring form is only getting worse.”
And every published novelist knows that the title his book winds up with is not always the one he chose for it, because publishers make the final call on such things. So my gripe is not with authors in any medium who are forced to live with a Dumb-Ass-Title (hereafter referred to as a DAT) by forces beyond their control. Authors who go with a DAT by choice are the ones with whom I take issue.
What, in my opinion, constitutes a DAT in the literary world? The following trifecta of death, “death” in this case being no interest from me whatsoever in reading the book so afflicted:
- A length of one word (or two, if you include a preceding and pointless “the”). Think about it — the entire scope and breadth of your novel can be reduced to ONE WORD? What kind of message is that to be sending to potential readers?
- Ubiquity. If the word you choose for your title is as commonplace and ordinary as sliced bread, why should anyone expect your writing to be any different?
And most importantly:
- Predictability. “Detective” is a nice word, and it really comes in handy when you write crime fiction, but I think we can all agree that it’s rather lacking in multiple meanings, yes? Chances are, if the title of a book is DETECTIVE, its storyline involves someone who could most accurately be described as. . . well, a detective! Big surprise, huh? Yet another way to appeal to potential readers — announce by way of your book’s title not to expect anything unexpected.
To really qualify as a DAT, a title has to meet all three of the criteria above. For instance, BEAT may only be one word (yeah, Schwartz, I’m talking about you), but is that word particularly ubiquitous? And does BOULEVARD immediately suggest what the book is about? The answer in both cases is no, so these titles don’t make my DAT cut. (Okay, Stephen, you can exhale now.)
In the comments to my original post, I engaged in a rather lively debate with a crime writer who objected to my assertion that he’d given his latest book a DAT. He argued that the title he’d chosen was in fact an ingenious one because, as readers of the book would discover in the end, it had a secret meaning. I won’t rehash all the ways I debunked that argument here, except to say that the cleverness of a title with a “secret” or double meaning is completely lost on somebody who hasn’t yet read the associated book — i.e., somebody cruising the shelves at their local book store looking for something great to read. Like a duck, if it looks like a DAT, sounds like a DAT, and smells like a DAT, people are going to be inclined to assume that it is a DAT, and won’t grant you 389 pages to disabuse them of that notion. The time to impress potential readers with your capacity to surprise is at the start of your book, not the end of it, and that start — even before page 1 — is your title.
If you’re beginning to get the idea I could go on and on about DATs if left to my own devices, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. This phenomenon doesn’t just confound me, it saddens me a little, in the same way that all avoidable, self-destructive behaviors we humans sometimes engage in do. However, as I’ve beaten this poor, dead horse into the ground online once already, and don’t particularly feel like being the negatron I usually am, what I’d like to do today is turn my old post on its head and devote the rest of this one to singling out some relatively recent crime novel titles that I think are the polar opposite of a DAT. The following are Kick-Ass Titles (KATs), the kind a reader can’t help but notice and be drawn to, and in my estimation, all are no less exceptional and creative than the fine novels — and authors — they represent.
(As an added bonus, I’m including an Alternative DAT for each, just to demonstrate what might have been, had the gods not smiled upon us all.)
A BAD DAY FOR SORRY – Sophie Littlefiield
This title has blown me away since the moment I first heard it. Its primary message is immediately and abundantly clear: Somebody in Littlefield’s terrific book is about to suffer the effects of a full can of whup-ass. And seriously, what more should the title of a crime novel ever need to say?
Alternative DAT: PISSED
THE BARBED-WIRE KISS – Wallace Stroby
Shit. This title ticks me the hell off, and always has, because I wish to God I’d thought of it first. It makes all the jacket copy for Stroby’s debut noir thoroughly unnecessary, as everything you need to know about his story is right there: Love; pain; sex; betrayal. No title in the tradition of Chandler and Ross Macdonald could be a more a fitting homage to the masters than this one.
Alternative DAT: THE FLAME
EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE – Lawrence Block
All of Block’s titles for his Matthew Scudder novels are memorable — A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE, etc. — but this one, I think, is his best. Some reference to death in the title of a mystery or crime novel is a no-brainer, but it’s hard as hell to work it in in a way that isn’t blatantly obvious or unoriginal. Block managed that trick here.
Alternative DAT: MORTALITY
THE CONCRETE BLONDE – Michael Connelly
Blondes are a fixture in classic crime fiction, and concrete is often used as a metaphor for the cold, hard city. Put these two things together and you have a title that promises nothing but trouble for a beautiful woman — and by extension, Connelly’s homicide detective Harry Bosch.
Alternative DAT: BURIED
61 HOURS – Lee Child
One thing a great title does, even as it’s offering hints as to what kind of book it belongs to, is raise questions. Note that Child didn’t title this Reacher novel 24 HOURS, or 48 HOURS — it’s 61 HOURS. And what in the hell can happen in exactly 61 hours? You have to read the book to find out, and Child is counting on you becoming curious enough to do just that. Clever. Very clever.
Alternative DAT: THE CLOCK
DARKNESS, TAKE MY HAND – Dennis Lehane
Lehane’s another author whose book titles all tend to stick in the mind — MYSTIC RIVER is a prime example — but this one, for his second Kenzie-Gennaro mystery, which deals with a serial killer who targets children, is my favorite. It alludes to the temptation evil sometimes holds over us all, and what could be a more ominous intro to a crime novel than that?
Alternative DAT: TWISTED
THE BLADE ITSELF – Marcus Sakey
Nothing conveys life-altering heartache quite like the expression “cut to the bone,” and Sakey’s title for his debut novel evokes this experience brilliantly. Could there be any doubt that this is a noirish thriller with serious attitude? None whatsoever.
Alternative DAT: THE DEFENDER
FUN & GAMES – Duane Swierczynski
Though Swierczynski is capable of dropping a DAT of his own every now and then — THE BLONDE? Really? — more than a few of his titles hit the Kick-Ass Title sweetspot for me. It’s a toss-up which title I like better — this one or POINT & SHOOT — but they both speak volumes about Swierczynski’s old school, pulp-era sensibilities, and the emphasis he places on entertainment above all else.
Alternative DAT: THE BRUNETTE
FEAR OF THE DARK – Walter Mosley
Actually, my appreciation for this title to Mosley’s 2006 Fearless Jones/Paris Minton novel is entirely selfish, because it immediately reminds me of a debut novel near and dear to my heart that was published 19 years earlier:
Remember what I said earlier about THE BARBED-WIRE KISS being an homage to Chandler and Ross Macdonald? Well, that’s got to be what this was, right? An homage to me? So I’m flattered. Really. I swear to God.
Alternative DAT: SPOOKED
One last word before I sign out: There’s another level to the moronic-title descent into hell that I call “Just Plain Stupid.” JPSTs can be of any length, yet still manage to be even more obvious and devoid of originality than DATs, and the reason I chose this subject for today’s post is a JPST that’s been all over billboards lately that makes me want to tear my hair out, rather than shave it cleanly from my scalp:
Hmmm. You think maybe this film has something to do with horrible bosses? Talk about a title that requires zero brainpower to interpret. The only mystery in it is just how long the geniuses behind it took to come up with it: four seconds or a whopping fourteen?
Questions for the class: How about you, my fellow ‘Ratis? Do DATs make the top of your head come off the way they do mine? If so, name a few that really bent you out of shape. Or conversely, name some titles that you think qualify as KATs instead.