Thursday, November 17, 2011

What's in a title?

I had a meeting this afternoon about a paper I am giving at a research seminar on a panel with two of my friends and colleagues in March. Our research is quite varied and does not really link up in anyway - one of us is researching scientific writing and the Royal Society in the 17th/18th century, another on the East India Company Archive 17th-19th century, and my research is on Stephen Poliakoff, which puts me firmly in the late 20th/21st century.

There is, however, one area in which we are all interested and have talked about with varying degrees of intellectual depth: the archive. But none of us could face yet another panel on this subject and have happily discovered that we are also interested in the anecdote - so that will be our general subject for our panel.

From there we had to write a title for our panel - this sounds easier than it actually is.

In today's lecture for the course I teach on we were discussing contemporary publishing in all its glory and shallowness, and one of the questions was about whether we read a book because of its title. To our surprise none of the students said they were attracted to a book by a title - other factors were more important for them, particularly front covers it seems, so that old saying about judging and covers never goes away. But do we judge a book, or a play, or opera, or an art exhibition, or a film, or a song, or whatever else, by its title? What impact does a title have? Do we learn anything from a title?

We decided our panel title needed to have a colon - the colon in academic paper titles is all. Or not. I still maintain my best title was a two word title for a paper on AL Kennedy - Writing Home - now though I have long wordy titles with quotes and colons. We wanted something about fragments in our title to reflect the fragmentary, shard like, nature of the anecdotes and anecdotal stories and incidents we would be discussing. The only thing which came to mind over and over again was 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' - the famous line which comes four lines before the end of the fifth section - What the Thunder Said - of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and while I'm talking about titles, it is interesting to observe the reason why the European Parliament wouldn't allow Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw to stage The Waste Land in their new parliament building in Brussels was because the powers that be didn't care for the title...What if T.S. Eliot had kept the title he originally considered - He Do the Police in Different Voices? Or on a less dramatic level if Ian McEwan had maintained the original title of Atonement so that it was An Atonement - it was his publisher who wanted it to be just Atonement and McEwan relented.

'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' is an incredible line, but one which we could not use: how could we?

The line has been haunting me for the rest of the day, and whilst I listened to a paper on mourning this evening it kept returning: 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'.

Eventually we came across a fantastic Francis Bacon (Bacon senior, the 16th century statesman, not the 20th century painter) quote: 'Out of monuments, names, words, proverbs, traditions, private records and evidences, fragments of stories, passages of books, and the like, we do save and recover somewhat from the deluge of time'. But this was too long, so after a bit of chopping and twisting we came up with 'Recovering from the deluge of Time' as our before the colon bit of the title. We liked it, but while we were trying to work out the post colon bit, we started playing around with a (mis)quote from Paul Simon's song 'You can call me Al'. So now we had 'Incidents and Accidents, Hints and Allegations'...  we stuck with it, but I do wonder a little bit if we cheated. We had moved away from our desire for fragments, the Bacon quote seemed a long way away, but I like it so much I know I have to use it at some point.

What is in a title? Would you read a book just because of its title? Or see a play?

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