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Updike was great, but he was a terrible titler

From a discussion of Richard Ford and John Updike:

I can’t think of a single good title among all of Updike’s stories and novels. OK, I guess The Witches of Eastwick isn’t a bad title. But that’s about it. Nothing in the oeuvre to match the title, The Sportswriter.

Philip K. Dick was another writer who couldn’t come up with a good title to save his life. Hemingway, though–he knew how to write a title. Over and over again, he came up with winners. It’s a real skill.

It was only years after publishing Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks that I realized I should’ve called it Learning Statistics: A Bag of Tricks. Maybe it was years after writing Rabbit, Run, that Updike realized he should’ve called it Anhedonia or whatever. (And the sequels: Rabbit Redux and the rest . . . great novels, but awful, awful titles. What was he thinking??)

Raymond Carver’s titles are good, but that impresses me less since I’m not so impressed with his stories. George V. Higgins’s titles were OK–not bad, mostly not great–but his novels had some classic last lines. He really knew how to sum it up, often with a character making a devastating offhand remark.

After writing this, I scanned my bookshelves. Most of the books on the shelf have good titles. Apparently it’s just not that hard to do. Looked at from that perspective, there’s almost something heroic in Updike’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to come up with more than one or two good titles among dozens of books and hundreds (probably thousands) of stories. and articles.

P.S. Gore Vidal is another great writer who can’t seem to come up with a good title to save his life. Cheever, on the other hand, could really whip ’em off: The Swimmer, The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, and all the rest.

6 Comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    "Philip K. Dick was another writer who couldn't come up with a good title to save his life." Nonsense– PKD's title's were brilliant, just not commercial.

  2. Megan Pledger says:

    If you have called it "Learning Statistics: A Bag of Tricks" then students would have got it out thinking it was going to make learning statistics easier.

    The title "Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks" lets students know that it's aimed at teachers of statistics.

  3. Dana says:

    What might some criteria be for what constitutes a good or bad title? Can't be merely brevity, can it?

  4. Chris says:

    I also agree that Philip K. Dick's titles were brilliant. Some of the best ever, in fact. Consider _A Scanner Darkly_, _Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said_. Awesome!

  5. Andrew Gelman says:

    Megan: Exactly. I think that reading it would make it easier to learn statistics.

  6. John says:

    What might some criteria be for what constitutes a good or bad title? Can't be merely brevity, can it?

    Colons are deadly.

    Verbs help. The Violent Bear It Away; The Sun Also Rises; Where I'm Calling From; What We Talk about When We Talk about Love; The Man Who Loved Children; Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?