A few columns ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of signs and why I believe that they are interesting from a literary standpoint. That column started in kind of the same way. These examples (from Cynthia Manick, Carmen Maria Machado and Hanif Abdurraqib, respectively) are of literary elements a little closer to home, but just as brief and easy to overlook: titles.
I never used to pay attention to the titles of things. I write a lot of fiction, and the case with almost all of my early short stories was that they would linger with the same dull placeholder title (“Ocean Story,” “Bear Story,” etc.) until I eventually just had to come up with one and slap something mediocre on at the last minute. I still do this with quite a lot of my writing.
All the same, titles were more or less on my radar for a while as something generally important, but the first time I remember really being struck by them is when I first came across Hanif Abdurraqib. His bibliography is a gold mine of stunning and beckoning titles. The thing that stands out about them is that they’re all stunning in different ways. Some simply hint at interesting conceptions of poetry, like the phenomenal “Poems From an Email Exchange,” or the ones simply named after songs (“Cutting Crew — (I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight” and “Carly Rae Jepsen — E•MO•TION” being a couple of really cool examples). Some capture scenes within themselves, like “Sunday, I-80” and “1995. After The Streetlights Drink Whatever Darkness Is Left.” There are long titles and short titles, odes and defenses.
The more I started paying attention to titles, the more writers I found to be impressed by. Cynthia Manick is another writer whose titles tell compressed, self-contained stories: “The Reaper in Me,” “I See a Dirt Road Inside Myself,” “Ethel September” and “I Saw You on the Delta Queen.” “Revolution Staccato in B” reminds me of what I think is so magical about all of these titles: their musicality. Titles don’t only draw us into the work. They also fix our attention upon fewer words, and thereby propel us to consider the convention that builds the work up and makes it beautiful: its language. They tell us, “This is the core of the piece, of what I am about to show you.”
I do believe that a work can be complete without a good title, but a title has a potential to add an entirely new level to any given work that shouldn’t be ignored. Another of my favorite writers, Carmen Maria Machado, often uses her titles as a twist that drives the meaning of her stories a little deeper, or at least hammers that meaning in. This is true both of her recent short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” and of her stories themselves, such as “Mary When You Follow Her,” “Horror Story” and “Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”
To think that a title is only there to grab the reader’s attention is to ignore a unique truth: A title is a fragment of a given piece of writing that exists on an entirely different plane from the rest. It can be valuable sometimes to stay with the title for a moment and let it sit with you, before reading a piece or after, or both. The title is both inside and outside of a piece of writing, as a reader is just before or just after they read it, making this a gateway full and rich with creative potential and movement.