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The Driftwood Remains: My Search for A Bankable Title

December 19, 2011 | by

Hope: A Tragedy was the first title I suggested to my editor. I really thought it was right.

“No,” he said.

My parents didn’t love me, so I have low self-esteem, and I agreed to keep working. These are some of the alternate titles I presented, and the reasoning for or against them:

The Diary of Anne Frankenstein:
My working title; I never really intended to use it—too Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters—but it had grown on me, and I mentioned it to my editor as I was finishing the manuscript. This caused him to proclaim a couple of “title rules” for this novel:

1) Nothing funny.

2) No mentioning Anne Frank.

Apparently, people don’t buy “funny” novels, and they don’t buy books about Anne Frank. Which is, ironically enough, pretty fucking funny.

It’s a Wonderful Ka-Pow:
Too funny.

Did I Ever Tell You How Unlucky You Are?
Too funny.

To Those About to Be Consumed by Flames:
Too Sedaris.

Nowhere Ho:
I liked this title quite a bit, a play on the old expression “Westward Ho.” Kugel, the main character, wishes for nothing more than to be nowhere—a place with no past, no history, no wars, no genocides. My editor liked it as well, and began mentioning it to people, testing it out. It turns out young people don’t know that expression anymore. The poor dears were very confused. My editor was disappointed. I wanted to run to Nowhere even more than I had before.

There was a brief concern that they wouldn’t know who Anne Frank is, either, which, we decided, would be pretty fucking funny.

The Sufferers:
I do my best to stay out of bookstores because they make me want to kill myself, but apparently The X is a bit of a trend now. The Informers, The Intuitionist, The Imperfectionists. Et cetera. There was some concern it would be seen as that. I had a difficult time believing that things had gotten so bad that the word “The” was a trend.

“Like the Bible?” I asked.

“Keep working,” I was told.

The Lacerations and The Crematorians died for the same reason. Probably for the best, those.

What Have You Done, Mother, What Have You Done?
My editor phoned one day, and told me that he liked novel titles that were questions.

“Questions?” I asked.

“Questions.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I like titles that are questions,” he said.

“That’s why?”

“Yes.”

“Because you just like them?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you like titles that are questions?”

“Hey,” he replied, “what’s with all the goddamned questions?”

“Sorry,” I said.

My parents didn’t love me, so I have low self-esteem, and I agreed to keep working.

The Sea:
That’s the title of a John Banville novel. It makes me laugh for some reason, and so I suggest it as a title for every book I write. This was the response:

?

The Driftwood Remains:
There’s an old Yiddish expression: the storm passes but the driftwood remains. It seemed appropriate, and it sounded like a “literary novel,” plus Yiddish is a dying language, so I’d get points for that.

“What’s the title?” people asked.

The Driftwood Remains,” I said.

“Oh,” they replied, nodding their heads as if to say, Yes—yes, that sounds like a book. My editor, showing it to people he knew, was getting the same unenthusiastic reception.

We kept looking. As the time ticked by, the suggestions received more scrutiny and less consideration. The Attic was my shrink’s recommendation. He pushed it pretty hard, too. “Because the attic is his superego, which he is trying to emerge from beneath.” That’s what’s called knowing too much about your character. Just analyze me, Doc, stay away from my characters. Laceration Nation—too George Saunders. Life’s a Gas—too Tadeusz Borowski. Sufferer’s Delight—too Sugarhill Gang.

The Excruciating Agony of Joy: Sounded to my wife a bit too much like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She was pushing for Hope: A Tragedy from the beginning, though, so maybe she was just bullshitting me.

At last, time ran out and the winter catalog had to ship, which is the way most literary decisions are finally made.

“How about,” the editor said to me, “Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel? But when the copy editor complains, I’m giving her your landline.”

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

Shalom Auslander is the author of the short story collection Beware of God and the memoir Foreskin’s Lament. His first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, will be published by Riverhead Books in January.

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4 Comments

  1. Cian | December 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I’m just glad there’s a new Shalom Auslander book.

  2. Granite Sentry | December 21, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Interesting, but somebody should have gotten him to excise the title Foreskin’s Lament from the earlier work.

  3. Mr. Smarty-Pants | December 23, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    The following are prospective titles for the volume of mediocre poems and incoherent essays that I will hopefully never write.

    “Blood from a Turnip” (inspired by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “A Few Figs from Thistles,” but I think “Blood from a Turnip” has a lot more punch to it.)
    “My Jeans Are Authentic” (Yours might be too, especially if they’re cheap ones from someplace like K-Mart. Just check the label.)
    “The Cheese Stands Alone” (This is a fabulous line from “The Farmer in the Dell.” I was heartbroken to see this used as the title of some acoustic-y CD a few years ago. I really did think of it independently, so I ought to be able to use it anyway.)
    “The Banner With the Strange Device” and its sequel, “The Dynamic Ribbon Device” (Thanks to Longfellow and Coca Cola.)
    “Sailors Take Warning”

  4. Laura McNeal | January 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    About five years ago my husband and I had a great working title for our book: WICKED. We had no idea how fitting the final title for our book–CRUSHED–would be, given the ultimate popularity of the book that made us change the name.

2 Pingbacks

  1. [...] more on the ‘hope’ part (Auslander wrote about how that title was finally chosen in The Paris Review). There is a lot of similar wordplay (typical of a farce) throughout the novel, most of which is [...]

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