We, as children, learned to read under the guidance of teachers, who taught us grammar and syntax; for example, the contractions of speech that it takes a foreigner years to master in the journey of language-learning. We learn, as craftsmen of language, the fillers that come in speech, the nervous tic between thoughts, but they remain few and far between us scribblers who manage to find a publisher or agent or both know that we are nothing but dust without an editor. There are copy editors and proofreaders who catch the errors of our ways. There is structural editing that seizes logical inconsistencies, and anachronisms; and there are the editors – right or wrong, whose long-deliberated or last minute change can save a writer from obscurity by providing something as fundamental as — the right title.
Somehow in the instances that I cite below an editor convinced the respective authors of those books that a better title was in order.
First Impressions is not better than Pride and Prejudice.
The Man Who Disappeared is not better than Amerika.
F.F. for The Ice Storm. Really?
Trimalchio, In West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover were all precursors to The Great Gatsby. What was he drinking?
1984? Orwell had entitled it The Last Man in Europe.
The Strangers Within became Lord of the Flies.
Gone with the Wind is legendary, but what about its original title, Tomorrow is Another Day? I think not.
Dracula was The Dead un-Dead.
The Sun Also Rises was Fiesta.
War & Peace was All’s Well End’s Well. Leo? Really?
Brideshead Revisited was The House of Faith.
Catch-11 or Catch-22?
Squeeze the eyes tight for this one: The Kingdom by the Sea for Lolita.
Barb-B-Q was the original title for The Postman Rings Twice. Makes sense in the novel but not in the title.
Summer of the Shark = Jaws.
Salinas Valley = East of Eden. You’re tearing me apart, Mr. Steinbeck.
Work in Progress = Finnegan’s Wake. Too much Irony there.
What do we make of all of this? The majority of us laugh at the titles as near misses, but they had been the choices of the individual authors, until they’d had a change of heart, or an editor had cleared his throat and suggested an alternative. Maxwell Perkins gave us The Great Gatsby.
The one exception, where the author had the right state of mind was John O’Hara. The Infernal Grove, as a title others had suggested to him, did not sway him from his intended course: Appointment in Samarra.
All of this might seem entertaining, if not superfluous, were it not for the fact that publishing is in flux. The Big Six wrestle with Amazon, and the advances have diminished, and nearly all the publishing houses have purged editors from their ranks, which requires that new authors put their best work forward with no mentor on their behalf. F. Scott Fitzgerald had potential but it had taken Maxwell Perkins to believe he had more to offer readers. The authors who do make it don’t always make the money to live on their pen alone. They remain few and far in between and even they could have used a good editor to save them from more than a bad title.