A controversy smoulders in the life of letters, of which gentle reader may be unaware. It may be detected from distant little whisps of smoke; occasionally it blazes, but far, far away. It is one of those questions to which there can be only two answers; which promise no “middle way.” It applies to books, primarily, but may also vex writers of poems and essays. The question is: which to write first, the title or the “text”?
Truth to tell, this is a very modern problem. In the good old days (that ended some time in the fifteenth century) it could not exist. Books back then had no titles. Or rather, they took their titles, for cataloguing purposes, from the first several words of the text. The popes still do this by convention, although the habit of draughting in universal Latin has now been discarded, and who knows what will go next. Sometimes the book would prove so popular that it might acquire a nickname, such as “Iliad” or “Odyssey.” But these were attached by readers, or librarians, without consulting the author, long dead.
Much changed, with the invention of printing, which made literature so accessible and cheap. I suspect this was one of the changes: the need for louder, more distinctive labelling, to grab the purchaser’s attention in a market soon cloyed. Indeed, were I not so idle, I think I could prove it.
Open your Horatius, gentle reader, and leaf through the pages. The poems have no titles. They are grouped in old-technology “books” by genre, and numbered. Now, Horace was a self-conscious author — a “preener” just between you and me — I’m sure he would have loved to write droll titles for all of his effusions. But he knew that would be gauche. So like the Psalms, we call up his carmina by number, or by the opening phrase.
By tradition, this little essay should have been headed, “A controversy smoulders.” But I can’t help myself, for I am not only a preener but a modern, and the chance of a title is available to me. This is like everything else that is modern, or post-modern, or post-post: who can resist?
The issue came once again to a head last week, while drinking with my buddies in a decaying pub in the wrong part of town (the middle). Often, there is some altercation in the street outside; hardly ever inside, given the clientèle. For we are old and lazy. The fights are more vivid to those of us who smoke, and therefore go out on the sidewalk every hour or less. This sets one, as it were, in the middle of the middle of things.
In this case smoking was unnecessary, however, because the young lady pugilists were bouncing off the windows by which we sat.
Nine of them, there were — corresponding to the Muses, I reflected from my count. Students, I would guess, from Ryerson “University,” which is in course of being Islamicized. All were dressed in wonderfully dignified blacks or dark browns, head to toe; all but one with elegant head-scarves — as upon the tanagra that make me homesick for Rhakotis. By their voices and their beautifully dark, round faces, their sparkling eyes, I could see they were Somali.
They were having what in our unselfconscious youth we might have called “a catfight.” Though we feared for the integrity of the glass that separated us from the participants, we were highly entertained. It was years since any of us elderly gentlemen had had the opportunity to watch a good catfight from up close.
At some point, the one young lady who happened to be sans jilbab fled into the pub. This was not to order a drink, I should explain — which any of us would gallantly have stood her. Rather, it was to pace back and forth like a caged lioness. It became evident that she was the focus, the protagonist of the drama. Providence had supplied her with this sanctuary from a seething, teetotal mob.
Wanting a cigarette, I went out, skirting these thrashing women who, for a pleasant change, were not after all angry with me.
Three young Somali males then arrived, with smiles on their rather irksomely smug faces. I was delighted to note that the girls ignored them, and continued to convulse in their pre-classical manner, as might the Dionysian priestesses in an hysterical, maenadic dance. Eventually all moved away; but not before I was able to determine, from English locutions whizzed within the storm, the efficient cause of their lively disputation. One of the girls had accused another of stealing her cellphone. It is pure speculation on my part that the lioness, still pacing, had been presumed guilty.
She, too, disappeared, after a kindly fat old Ryerson professor had gone out on her behalf, to find the coast clear.
A more attractive spectacle, I must say, than the previous week’s entertainment, when a man who might answer to the anachronist’s description of “a drug-crazed hippie” slammed a heavy, spiked chunk of builders’ wood against the window of the shop next door. The Chinese proprietor then emerged, twirling a golf club — a four-iron, on later inspection of its remains. Alas, for him: a high-tech golf club, with its flimsy graphite stalk, of use in battle only as a sling. The wielder became much the more gashed as the contest progressed into an alleyway.
Several public-spirited lads stepped smartly forward to break them up. A shrieking jury of multi-racial girls, with accents unmistakeably Canadian, continued to debate among themselves, on which contestant had “started it” — until reaching their uninformed consensus. Meanwhile, a Chinese shop assistant led his bloodied employer away, while begging onlookers not to call police. I doubt anyone had thought of that, anyway: the police in Toronto generally having “more important things to do.” (By one estimate, paperwork takes up four-fifths of their time.)
Bear with me, gentle reader, even though I may seem to have wandered off-topic.
Returning to the table, of my fellow elders, French and English relics of Canada’s placid, suffocating past — when cops were easily diverted by a bust-up — I was in both instances carefully debriefed. The conversation moved on. Pierre, let us call him (for that is his name), asked me after the latter occasion what I would write the next morning. I told him my title would be, “Torments of the damned.”
“What torments for which damned?” he asked, with the sangfroid of a Cardinal Archbishop’s nephew.
“I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.”
It is a point of pride with me, an axiom of craft, that having selected a title, I must write an essay to justify it — even if in a gratuitously obscure way. Gentle reader may judge from the archive of the Catholic Thing whether I succeeded.
On several occasions, when my (dubious) services have been requested as a “literary adviser,” I have had to pronounce on the question of titles. “Which is more important, the title or the book?” I have been asked, by wide-eyed novices.
My answer is, “The title, of course. A good title can make a book chart; it can move otherwise immovable stock. Whereas, the book itself will interest no one.”
Verily, write a memorable title, and people will have to buy the book, to back up their claims to have read it already, and make their admiration of the author’s bold originality the more plausible, even to themselves.
It follows, I should think, as night the day, that the aspiring author should expend all his best energies in composing and polishing a brilliant title. His “downtime” may then be exercitated upon the provision of some decorous bulk.