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Xin Fan has published 52 articles

Working Titles

Xin Fan digs up a few first titles from a selection of perennial favourites
Xin Fan on Saturday 21st April 2012
Photograph: I love to read@flickr

Many of our best-loved books and novels didn’t always go by their now famous names.

Writers write books. Publishers sell them. As anyone working at a publication with any sort of top-down structure will be sure to warn you, what you think is comedy stand-up of the century can often leave editors scratching around for other people’s eyes to gouge, having torn out their own. Where one person sees a Dickens, another person doesn’t see the e, n, or s. The same thing can end up happening with the title you choose for your opus. Choosing a name for your paperback baby is a lot like choosing a name for a real one. (Admittedly not the voice of experience.) ‘Shaniqua’ might mean ‘ornithologically intriguing’ in a rare dialect of Tongan, but some people might just not get it. Often editors, or authors themselves late in the day, suddenly come up with something that clicks. In some cases in the annals of literary history, ‘thank goodness that happened’ is probably the right reaction.

Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament

(Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

The late 1990s – years when Tony Blair was still ‘Tony’, the centre-parting ruled supreme, and most of us were still defacing clean surfaces with a crayon. And also the days when sauntering into primary school with the latest gargantuan JK Rowling tucked under your little arm made you the most fashionable pre-teen this side of the local main road. (‘I read half of it yesterday. So and so dies.’) In this fourth volume, as any diligent geek will recall, Daniel Radcliffe and his chums somehow get tickets to a high-profile quadrennial international sporting event not in London, host a French and Bulgarian exchange at school, and take part in an intercollegiate competition that makes winning Cuppers look somehow anticlimactic in comparison. No more happy fascination with twee levitation and confectionary that breaks health and safety regulations. It wasn’t a doddle to write – at one point Rowling was halfway through the draft before realising a ‘huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot’. She had planned to go with Doomspell Tournament as the noun to go into the familiar formulaic title; the working title was then leaked. She changed Doomspell to Triwizard before changing it completely to Goblet of Fire, which sounds Grail-arific but is actually eminently attainable if you’re really particular about how you like your crème brûlée served.

Trimalchio in West Egg

(The Great Gatsby)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was not short of ideas when it came to naming his semi-autobiographical story of a man who is rejected by his dream gal and then hopes to impress her with his millions (we’ve heard it all before, Cee Lo). Gatsby; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; Trimalchio; Trimalchio in West Egg; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover were all considered by Fitzgerald at various stages of writing and publication, although his eggy reference to the debauched character from Latin fiction was his personal favourite. His editor, conscious that this was probably going to go over the most heads of most people without a Classics degree (i.e. the general American public with the purses and wallets to buy the book), advised him to go with The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald reluctantly agreed, and his dissatisfaction was apparent when, a month before publication, he tried unsuccessfully to get it changed back to Under the Red, White, and Blue. ‘The title is only fair, rather bad than good,’ he grumbled.

The Last Man in Europe

(Nineteen Eighty-Four)

Eric Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell, wrote most of 1984 during the harsh winter of 1947-8 in a thinly furnished abode on the Scottish island of Jura. It almost killed him. Orwell had planned to call his dystopian masterpiece The Last Man in Europe, but was never really sure about the name. His editor, Fred Warburg, persuaded him to go with his alternative idea, the more commercially pitch-able 1984, although no one can be quite certain as to why exactly he came to select this iconic date.

Catch-[pickanumberanynumber]

(Catch-22)

Not many book titles end up as nouns. But Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic provides the now enshrined term which is used to describe awkwardly binding, lose-lose situations. The published title refers to a military regulation (‘Catch-22’) in the novel, which states that being concerned for one’s safety is a sign of sanity – when, in the predicament the pilot characters find themselves in, flying suicidal missions would be insane, yet to claim insanity and to ask not to would demonstrate ‘Catch-22’ and prove otherwise, so you would have to fly more (suicidal) missions. Because of what the ‘catch’ actually was – a listed rule – the name was to some extent arbitrary. Heller had suggested three different numbers before coming to an agreement. The initial offering of Catch-11 was actually fine – had some goddam film called Ocean’s Eleven not been released just a year before. Catch-17 also risked being confused with a film, this time POW camp drama Stalag 17; and Heller’s editor just didn’t like the number 14. Eventually they went with 22, which was considered suitably similar to Heller’s original title.

Most of Jane Austen’s titles

(Various)

Writing in an era when that handsome devil was more likely to marry your sister after a night on the dance floor than ask for your (house) number, and your cousin’s life was the closest thing to a Gossip Girl box set, old Jane no doubt had the sort of wits that would put Mills & Boon out of business. Curiously, she had a penchant for straightforwardly naming her stories after her characters: Elinor and Marianne was the initial title for Sense and Sensibility, The Elliots was her preference for Persuasion, and Susan (whom she subsequently renamed Catherine Moreland) was her first choice for what was later posthumously tweaked to Northanger Abbey by her brother, Henry.  The well-known exception to this pattern is First Impressions, which went on to become one of the most famous depictions of Colin Firth ever, Pride and Prejudice. At least she had her way with Emma, which, as English students have frequently insisted, is slightly better than Take Me Out.

The Dead Un-Dead

(Dracula)

Bram Stoker was going to call his snuggly bedtime favourite The Dead Un-Dead and was still set on calling it The Un-Dead just a few weeks before publication. The revision is a bit less B-movie, though Dracula himself only turns up in a tiny section of the novel, and rest of it is about why it’s generally a bad idea to export legal services to Romania. Stoker’s main antagonist had at first been given the cleverly unsuspecting title of ‘Count Wampyr’, but after reading a book about the history of Wallachia, he came up with the infamous name, based on the notoriously Vicious aristo-Lad Vlad (the Impaler), whose descendants’ family name was based on the Romanian for ‘son of the dragon, or devil’.

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts

(Gulliver’s Travels)

Jonathan Swift’s satire of traveller’s tales is right up there with The Borrowers and the Smurfs in Classic Representations of Tiny Imaginary People. Originally published in 1726 with the standard 18th-century-mouthful for a title, it was amended nine years later with a more concise description. Swift titles each ‘part’ of the book with ‘A Voyage to [a made-up, fantastical place]’ although in what has to be a tremendously calculated piss-take Part III is entitled ‘A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib,… and Japan’.

Forks

(Twilight)

Mormon fantasy-writer Stephanie Meyer has won her awkward chair next to Jane Austen in the next life with her bestselling, blood-sapping, testosterone-sapping guide to small-town American reality for newcomers to puberty. One thing the two authors can see eye-to-eye on: being a tad vapid in choice of book title. Reading excitedly through FAQs on Meyer's website – taking care not to be distracted too much by arresting conundrums like ‘…you described Bella's prom dress in so much detail. Do you have a picture of it?’ – acolytes are told quite bluntly by Meyer: ‘I called it Forks for lack of a better idea’. Disappointingly, this is nothing to do with cutlery. Connoisseurs of humane letters will reliably inform you that the novel itself is set in the city of Forks in the US State of Washington. Forks apparently likes to pride itself on being the ‘Logging Capital of the World’, which can’t be good news for forest-squatting anthropomorphs who flatly refuse to come out on a nice day. Meyer pooled ideas with her editor for ‘words with atmosphere’ to use as a better title, eventually settling on ‘twilight’. Not that not naming it after an actual place invites much certainty about how slightly detached the whole thing might possibly be from real life – the last question on the FAQs being: ‘Is Twilight autobiographical?’ No, says Meyer, it’s a work of fiction. Glad we ironed that one out.

Something That Happened

(Of Mice and Men)

John Steinbeck’s gift of concision makes his fast-paced Californian ranch tragedy a staple of modern American fiction and deliveries of AQA examination materials.  Steinbeck tended to work on his novels under no-frills, to-the-point titles (such as The Salinas Valley for what became East of Eden) before then settling on something more meaningful once he had finished.

Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice

(My Struggle/Mein Kampf)

Godwin’s Law – where would cheap comedy be without it? As history GCSE aficionados will spew forth from rote memory, Adolf climbed onto a pub table in Munich in 1923, ranted, caused a smidgen of kerfuffle, and then swagga’ed down the street into open gunfire, casual. In lieu of capacity to not be a nutcase, Adolf enjoyed some quality time behind bars with some other fellow nutters, during which time he cranked out a hefty volume which was similar to War and Peace only in the sense you can’t read it without going ‘how much of this is there left? Oh, ****.’ What to call this brilliant drivel? Max Amann, Hitler’s editor, considered the manuscript, and reckoned that he definitely wasn’t going to try selling anything called Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampfes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit (Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice), which Adolf had put to him after quite evidently setting aside a couple of less subtle alternatives. Running with this would probably leave the royalties as big as the font size. Amann’s pithy Mein Kampf was a shrewd alternative, and Adolf’s meisterwerk was a hit for a while. But there isn’t a Penguin Modern Classics edition of it on Amazon, so I’m guessing this guy was a bit of a one-hit wonder?

… and finally:

A Week With Willi Worm

(The Very Hungry Caterpillar)

Published in 1969, Eric Carle's iconic green obesity victim has done a timeless favour for little critters on the undersides of leaves everywhere. Three generations have grown up with the holey progress of this ‘food larva’ as he munches his way from egg to butterfly, but surprisingly the humble caterpillar was not Carle’s original inspiration. ‘One day I was punching holes with a hole puncher into a stack of paper, and I thought of a bookworm and so I created a story called A Week with Willi the Worm.’ In a decisive blow to worms and wormy aspiring thesps, Carle’s editor decided that Willi just wasn’t the sort of star protagonist that would woo the mass market. So Willi was wriggled away with his tail between his legs. ‘Then my editor suggested a caterpillar instead and I said 'Butterfly!' That's how it began,’ explains Carle. That’s right children, trisyllabic interjections win publishing contracts.

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