Book Article

Behind-The-Title

What's in a book title? -- Instead of "War and Peace," you could have been reading "All's Well That Ends Well"

F. Scott Fitzgerald never much liked The Great Gatsby as a title. He preferred Trimalchio in West Egg, after the rich patron in Petronius' Satyricon. Joseph Heller was planning to pin Catch-18 on his first novel, but a rival publisher was bringing out Leon Uris' Mila 18 around the same time, so Heller agreed to Catch-22. And though Dashiell Hammett thought up the title The Maltese Falcon before he even wrote his great detective thriller, his publisher was convinced the reading public would have trouble pronouncing ''falcon.''

What's in a title? For Andre Bernard, an executive editor at Book-of-the- Month Club, there's another book: Now All We Need Is a Title, a little volume that gives the inside story on more than 100 famous titles, from Don DeLillo's White Noise (originally named Panasonic, but the electronics company cried trademark infringement) to War and Peace (called All's Well That Ends Well until Tolstoy decided that his massive novel wouldn't have a happy ending after all).

''The title is really crucial,'' says Bernard, who read letters, diaries, and biographies of authors and editors while searching for his anecdotes. ''If you think about The Great Gatsby, it just sounds very elegant. If Fitzgerald had prevailed and called it Trimalchio in West Egg, I doubt if the publisher would have sold 11 copies.''

Good titles are hard to come by. ''Almost every author racked his or her brain,'' says Bernard. And a good thing they did: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind was first called Pansy (the original name for Scarlett O'Hara). Fittingly, even Bernard's own book started out with a different moniker: Untitled. How did he think of Now All We Need Is a Title? ''My editor came up with it,'' he says.

Originally posted Jan 20, 1995 Published in issue #258 Jan 20, 1995 Order article reprints
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