Literary Fiction’s Windbag Book Titles

August 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

I worry the prevailing MFA style of “literary fiction” will numb us all into a pseudo-poetic stupor. Images and sentiments are thrown together so that they sound pretty — and by pretty, I mean smooth and inoffensive. A narcotic adjective is fitted beside a mildly naughty topical reference and a character’s friend at a party is considered developed. Everything sounds okay and goes down smooth and nobody’s bothered by the art form’s potential rigors.

Take book titles these days. I’ve noticed (in my highly scientific sampling process) that the vast majority of contemporary “literary” book titles fall into a family of similar cadences, where slight, wispy, almost catchy phrases convey nothing but a decorous prettiness. For example:

  • The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • The Sound of Things Falling: A Novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

(As always, I hate picking on individual writers and I don’t mean to, but I’m arguing nothing without real examples.)

You see the pattern — that these are all slight images or sensations couched in just the right amount of abstraction or lofty suggestion so as to intimate grandeur. The sensation is like letting your head fall into a super-soft pillow. A soothing lull of imagery, like falling rain, superficially striking, a shortcut to artistry. This is my general complaint with MFA writing.

This kind of title is a convention, a commercial and pompous one. (Don’t believe me? Have a look through Amazon’s bestsellers in “Literary Fiction.”) It’s important to remember that so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what’s popular is what’s good or sound.

The upside is that it’s easy to know how to title your own next foray into literary fiction. Forthwith, my own entirely made-up list of future Booker longlistees, for your entertainment and inspiration:

  • The Lessons of Silence
  • Mrs. Buddingsway and Cousins
  • The Corn Mazes
  • Between Two Terraces: A Memoir
  • The Sex Workers’ Union: Stories
  • A Blatant Truth
  • Lime, Thyme, and Alice
  • Cotton Polly
  • Pirate Lessons for Esmé
  • A Mournful Playdate
  • Rain at the Milliner’s

I welcome your own literary fiction titles in the comments. Blow us away with your faint breezes!

P.S. If you have to call it literary in advance, it’s not the real thing. When was the last time you sat down to listen to some “artistic music”?

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