2020 publications to date: “The Imperishable Birds” in Fireside, “The Mill & Mechanism” in The Aleph Review, the “ion unnatural” poetry chapbook, “The Catafalque” in Kanstellation, and most recently, “Running the Gullet” in Collidescope; not to mention several new essays. This plague year’s beginning has been surprisingly busy for me, publication-wise.
Naming is difficult for beasts and books: the worst, though, is to be given a forgettable name. A name that slides off the eye, that slips off the tongue and gets lost in the grass underfoot. The name of a work should be a signal-light from a great distance, something that catches the attention and compels the reader to chase it, because they simply have to know. So it befuddles me when books are published with what sound like placeholder titles that were only supposed to keep the cover warm while waiting for something better.
I’ve been thinking about names—the names of books, the names of stories—partly because I’ve been trying to title better, or at all, in the case of some as-yet untitled projects. I like my published story titles from this year individually, for instance, but three out of four have a bit of a repetitive pattern, all “the something”. Look, they were not written as consecutively as they were published? Anyway, this probably doesn’t even matter; I’m not even sure the repetitiveness of the titling structure is particularly noticeable to anybody else since it’s rare for uncollected short story titles by the same writer to be juxtaposed. But on the other hand, what if I wanted a bit of variety when trying to put a collection together? What about that, titling-brain? Well.
I like odd titles the best—the meander of “Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes” and the little joke in “On the Origin of Specie” remain personal favourites. Specie(s) is a cousin of speculative, incidentally; they are both about the seeing of things, the spectacle, the suspicion, the all-too-spicy haruspicy. Sometimes there is reason to agonize over titles. Last year’s “Apologia” was almost called “The Big Sorry”, after a phrase in the story, mostly because I worried that the distinction between apologia and apology wouldn’t be clear enough in casual reading (and titles are frequently encountered more casually than texts) to be striking—but I kept it, in the end, because the distinction was just too good to waste. Is it a good title, though? Hmm, no, I think probably not. Sometimes it’s like that.
What separates a good title from a forgettable one is specificity; that should really be the first axiom of titling, to try to find title-words in something particular to your work, ideally without limiting yourself to common words or phrases that will only confuse your work with every other work in the universe also using the same common words or phrases. For example, you should never title a work “Dust”, no matter how much dust is in it.
What do these three books have in common? Mostly just that I read them all recently and enjoyed them in different ways—but no, they’re here because of their godawful titles. I picked them specifically to illustrate this point because I did like the books; the strands of dislike would be harder to disentangle if I were talking about bad titles on books I didn’t like. But here, it’s easy for me to say that in each case the title is something of a disservice to the book: the books deserved to stand out more.
Miles Cameron’s Cold Iron (2018) is a well-made generic high fantasy written in a meaty, interestingly tangible style and setting. Arguably it is a kind of historical fantasy. The title is egregious, though, a cliché in not one but two contexts—war and magic, both of which unsurprisingly figure heavily in this book and its two sequels. (For me, it also evoked to its disadvantage Michael Swanwick’s 1993 novella “Cold Iron”, also a lacklustre titling especially given that in the same year the same text also appeared as the opening section of Swanwick’s iconic novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a far stronger title even though it too is a bit of an overused snowclone; still, even though the pattern is hackneyed, the phrase itself is unusual enough to be striking. The novella version ends, if I remember correctly—I did in fact read this in Asimov’s sometime in the late 90s—at the point where Stilt runs past the Time Clock. Is the comparison unfair and probably meaningless? Yes, but that’s what you get for using clichés in titles: accidental juxtapositions with everybody else who ever used the same cliché.) The sequels to Cameron’s Cold Iron also have deeply uninspiring generic titles, it turns out: Dark Forge and Bright Steel. The books were fine: I enjoyed reading them and now remember little of them, which is about what I would expect. But I almost didn’t read them at all, despite a friend’s recommendation, because the titles were such yawners, and that would have been my loss, in our time of dreary coronation.
Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons (2019) is an even more extreme case of this problem, both in that I liked this book better than Cold Iron and I groaned even louder at its title. In fact, I made a horrible low-pitched noise like this: eeeeearrrgwhyyyyyyy. This is a book that works harder at breaking the well-worn patterns of high fantasy, so why this title? Though, I suppose, it’s true that when you get down to it both of these books do heavily rely on following the career of one special young man who spends a lot of time becoming ever more special through truly excessive amounts of sword-training, which gives the whole thing a kind of anime feel. Both books do manage to refresh that tired material, mostly through setting—especially Rage—which is certainly welcome in the formulaic world of high fantasy. And it should be said, in both cases, the titular cold iron and rage of dragons actually do mean very specific things in the story, not simply what they sound like. So these titles are not actually the random fantasy cliché title generator product they sound like, which is really almost as bad, or perhaps worse. It’s no good a generic-seeming title being meaningful in secret until someone reads the book; it’s no good having the reader hindsightfully plumb the hidden depths of titles that still have the shrinkwrapping on. So here is a second axiom: a title’s work is to bring readers to the story. Revealing futher hidden depths afterwards is great, it’s just a bit pointless if that primary obligation remains unfulfilled.
The sequels to Rage are yet to be announced, as far as I know: I suppose at this point it doesn’t matter so much how they are titled, since they will be read by people like me who’ve read and enjoyed the first book enough to follow it to its conclusion. But I still find myself wishing for the introduction of a striking series title, perhaps—something to separate it from this endless, undifferentiated flight of enraged dragons that surrounds us on all sides.
Antonio Moresco’s Distant Light (2013, translation by Richard Dixon in 2016) was originally called La lucina, I think, “the little light”; I think even that would have been a much better title in English. “Distant light” just comes off so much more leadenly portentous than either the original title or the text itself seems to call for. It suggests a sort of exaggerated hand-shading-the-eyes pose, eyes affixed to a horizon—what distant light through yonder window breaks? Or perhaps it is just this word distant that has grown wearisome from overfamiliar, mandatory social distancing. Distant already means “to stand apart”, the stan being the same in both words, not to mention the same stan as in having no choice but to stan—i.e., to stand together, which will not stand, man, because we are distanced, standing apart. The title aside, the book is a beautiful thing, a small, gentle novel of decay, isolation, and death. In a bizarre twist, it has apparently been made into a film starring Antonio Moresco himself as the protagonist. The book relies so heavily on the narrator’s intimate, conversational voice that I dread to think of how a film might handle it, even/especially a film starring the author. I have not yet ventured to find out. I am tempted, I admit, but I might not. Not all things are meant to be known. Sometimes you don’t have to chase down every unidentified and possibly otherworldly signal across the valley of the shadow, as Moresco presumably does in this film, as the narrator does in the book. The author is dead—he is not dead, to be clear, only acting—and it’s safe to stay home and safe, to close your eyes, to forget that which we are not compelled to chase. You feel for that lonely little light, though.