Raymond Chandler once said - and I’m paraphrasing, now - that a good title for a novel is a title of a novel that has sold a million books. By which he meant, I think, that a novel’s title is far less important than its story, and that we shouldn’t get unduly hung up on what the book is called.
That said, I’m a sucker for a good title. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA. TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE. THE LORD OF THE FLIES. TREASURE ISLAND. THE BIG SLEEP. Terrific titles, one and all - although, it should be said, they’re all terrific novels too.
Now that THE BABY KILLERS is going to be published, I’m wondering if ‘THE BABY KILLERS’ is a good title. In theory, at least, it’s an eye-catching attention grabber, which is one function of a novel’s title, and it’s nowhere as gratuitous as it might seem on first glance, as no actual babies are killed during the novel (it refers to the phrase ‘kill your babies’, the advice given to writers who, when redrafting a novel, need to excise those elements they might have a personal preference for, but which are not essential to the story).
I like the title, but I’m not precious about it, and I’m thinking strongly of changing it. If a potential reader declines to go any further with the book than that title on the basis of its ugly connotations (and there are few uglier concepts than the killing of babies), then I couldn’t really argue with him or her. Yes, we’re all grown-ups here, and the world we live in can be an ugly place; but that’s not a good enough reason to add unnecessary ugliness, just for the sake of what may or may not be an attention-grabbing title.
As all Three Regular Readers will be aware, I’m a struggling writer, and I have a baby girl called Lily. The novel features a character called Declan Burke, a struggling writer, who has a daughter called Lily. I was messing about during the week mocking up a cover for the book, and in the spirit of post-modern japery, it occurred to me to put a picture of the real Lily on the mocked-up cover. Except I didn’t even get past the idea of it; the very notion of putting a picture of my lovely little girl in close proximity to the title THE BABY KILLERS was a step too far.
Besides, I’ve been racking my brains, and I can’t actually remember one person who’s said to me, ‘Wow, that’s a great title.’ I have had quite a few comments, on the other hand, to the effect that the title is jarring, and off-putting. Most of those quite-a-few-comments have come from women, which is perhaps unsurprising; and what’s significant there is the fact that, as we all know, women read much more fiction than men. Does it make any sense to alienate the majority of potential readers?
This isn’t just a commercial decision that needs to be made. If it were, I’d probably allow my perverse streak to make the call, and plough ahead with THE BABY KILLERS. It’s more a question of whether or not I want as many people as possible to read my book, be they women or men. Occupying, as I do, one of the lowest rungs on the publishing ladder, I’m not actually writing for money, which is just as well, because at this point I’d be dead from starvation. No, I’m writing for the fun of it, for the joy of putting words in their best order, for the thrill of seeing people emerge hesitantly from whatever dark shadows lurk in the back of my mind and gradually come together to create something real and vibrant and true. Having achieved that, to the best of my ability, only one thing then matters - that as many people as possible read the story. And if even a non-scientific, anecdotal approach tells me that some or many women (and very probably men too) are likely to avoid the story on the basis of the title, then ‘killing the baby’ of the title becomes a no-brainer.
As it happens, most of the people who’ve been kind enough to pen a few words in support of the novel (see left) read the novel under a different title (it was called BAD FOR GOOD back then), and they either did or didn’t like it on the basis of the story, as opposed to the title. I may well revert to BAD FOR GOOD, although I do have another title in mind too.
In the meantime, what say you, O Three Regular Readers? Would the title THE BABY KILLERS put you off picking up a novel? Are you even worried as to what a novel is called? How important is a title, and a novel’s cover in general? I’m all ears …
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.