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Dueling Titles

conradfrontHundreds of readers opened their New York chekhovfrontTimes Book Review recently to see a review of a novel that had already been reviewed in April . . . no, wait. That earlier book was Life After Life by the terrific British novelist Kate Atkinson. This book is Life After Life by the terrific American novelist Jill McCorkle. A galumphing typo by the compiler of the table of contents at NYTBR? Nope. There’s the review, glowing about McCorkle’s book much as the reviewer of Atkinson’s book had glowed a mere two weeks earlier.

You cannot copyright a title, and good thing too. Otherwise, the dozen iterations of Forever that have appeared in print in the last two years alone (romance, fantasy, werewolves, YA—name your own genre) would have to resort to the thesaurus for Evermore, Ever and Anon, Till Hell Freezes Over, Semper Eadem. But although McCorkle’s and Atkinson’s publishers are trying to make lemonade, and although both books right now are at the top of indie booksellers’ lists, the stubborn fact remains that most book buyers are like most movie-goers. They remember the title, not the author or the director. They hear a brief clip on NPR or glimpse a short review in USA Today, and they click on Amazon. Whichever book is at the top of that list (Atkinson’s, at the moment) will be their next read. They may be a bit puzzled in this case. They thought they remembered something about funny old people in a retirement center, and here’s this Groundhog Day-style tale of a woman whose life keeps starting over. Oh, well. You paid $12.74 for the Kindle Edition, and it’s grabbing your attention, so you read on.

The same may not hold true for the loving grandmother who tries to buy 14-year-old Susie Between Shades of Gray, in the hope of teaching her about her Lithuanian heritage, only to be castigated by an irate daughter-in-law who discovers Susie under the blankets devouring Fifty Shades of Grey. Person of Interest, by either Susan Choi (2009) or Theresa Schwegel (2007), is likely to refer to the legal term for an individual who has been questioned but not charged in a crime, so at least you know your ballpark when you see the title. But the catchy title Life After Life, as the wide differences in Atkinson’s and McCorkle’s subject matter show, could refer to just about anything, even as it seems to fit each of their novels perfectly.

For those of us who contemplate launching books at an unsuspecting public, this twin-title business is a crystal-ball challenge. McCorkle’s publisher apparently didn’t know about the Atkinson title until it was too late. But when I was getting ready to publish my last novel, the most appropriate title I could think of was Atonement, which was not only taken but had been adapted into a wide-release film. The closest synonym, Penance, struck my publisher as somehow religious, and we compromised with what seems to me a reductive and unaesthetic title, The Lost Daughter. Similarly, when the novelist Stewart O’Nan was getting ready to release his book Upstate, his publisher learned that a young-adult book with the same title was due out just two months prior, and got the heebie-jeebies. O’Nan’s new title, The Good Wife, likewise strikes me as reductive, but at least young readers looking for a story about a loving guy locked up for murder will get the one about the 17-year-old and not the one about the 30-year-old.

I tell my creative-writing students that poems, paintings, and musical compositions can be untitled, but stories can’t. (That’s part of Martin Amis’s joke in The Information when his protagonist tries to hawk a book titled Untitled.) Given the richness of the English language, it’s hard to believe that only one title really fits an original piece of narrative work, and that that same title also fits another original piece. But those who have been through this process know what’s lost in the compromise. Here’s hoping that readers of Life After Life find themselves reading book after book, McCorkle after Atkinson or Atkinson after McCorkle, and everyone wins.

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