Gordon Haber

Writer, editor, mediocre guitarist

Untitled Gordon Haber Essay

This piece was published on the departed website Bookslut in April, 2010.

Titles are hard. You spend weeks or months or years on your work, and somewhere along the way you’re expected to encapsulate it in a few pithy words. It’s kind of draining, when you think about it. Maybe that’s why Mark Rothko used the word “untitled” so often — not because he wanted to leave interpretation to the viewer, but because he put so much effort into the art itself. After a long day of painting huge colored squares, who has the energy for titles? 

But I would posit that titles are hardest for filmmakers and writers. They need to suggest something with their titles. It’s a kind of marketing. Thus they can’t resort to Untitled (although I’m sure it’s been done), and Krzysztof Kieslowski cornered the market on colors and numbers.  

When I asked around, I found out that I was right. Amanda Church, a painter, told me that “a title can make or break a painting.” And Ruth Boerefijn, an installation artist, said that “sometimes a title comes to me out of the blue — and it is right.” Now, these remarks don’t suggest that titling is easy, but they were nowhere near as fraught or self-deprecating as the responses I got from the filmmakers and writers. Novelist Lauren Grodstein compared her “title sense” to her “sense of fashion — a little off, and not in a hip way.” And documentary filmmaker Robin Hessman referred to the process as “excruciating.”  

Considering all the agita, we might forgive those who take the easy way out — by using title templates or patterns. We might forgive some of them, anyway. Really there’s no excuse for using the most common pattern, Participling the Proper Noun, as exemplified by Searching for Bobby Fischer, Saving Private RyanFinding NemoKilling Zoe, and ten thousand other movie titles.  

We can’t blame it all on Hollywood. Martin Amis, who usually knows what he’s doing, has a nonfiction collection called Visiting Mrs. Nabokov. But the pattern does show the symbiotic relationship between screenplays and other forms of writing. Crossing Delancey and Driving Miss Daisy started out as a plays; Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Leaving Las Vegas were novels. The latest novel from one Elizabeth Aston is called Writing Jane Austen — a name with cachet in the movie business, to the point where Austen herself is a character in Becoming Jane, which (stay with me here) was based on the nonfiction book, Becoming Jane Austen.  

Two important points about Participling the Proper Noun. First, the participle is not a gerund, which is when a verb becomes a noun. (Trainspotting is a gerund; Being John Malkovich is not.) Second, with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, there is at least one unimpeachable use of the pattern. I think it’s fair to say that this title arose from the play itself, not from an attempt to make it sound like a movie. And who cares, anyway? The play would still be good even if it were called Irritating Estragon

Of course this isn’t the only title pattern. Another (noticed by the astute Michael Schaub) is The Occupation’s Relative. In this case, the relative is usually the distaff spouse, as in The Zookeeper’s WifeThe Senator’s WifeThe Astronaut’s Wife, and so on. This convention, I think, is used to emphasize that we still see wives as mere appendages to their husbands — and husbands as defined by their professions. Interestingly, the occupations can become quite abstract, as with the novels The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Regardless, The Occupation’s Relative is not limited to spouses. The Farmer’s Daughter is the title of a 1947 movie, a novel by Jim Harrison, and innumerable jokes about horny salesmen. With Senator’s Son, author Luke Larson drops the definite article, presumably following the elision of the Creedence song, Fortunate Son. Then there’s The Accordionist’s Son, by Bernardo Atxaga, who writes in his native Basque tongue. I’m guessing that the novel’s original title, Soinujolearen seme, translates directly into English, but my Euskera is rusty. 

A title pattern can define an entire career. Consider The Ludlum Protocol, named for the suspense novelist who awkwardly roped a proper noun to a noun, as in The Osterman WeekendThe Bourne Identity, and The Icarus Agenda. I suppose that the pattern sounded good to Ludlum. It also made his novels instantly recognizable on a paperback rack. But again, before we sneer, we should note that the Bourne movies were fun. And that when Ludlum did deviate from his own template, the results were not enticing. The Road to Omaha may be suspenseful, but it sure doesn’t sound like it. 

More recent patterns are looser, less grammatically stringent, perhaps as a reflection of uncertain times. One current literary pattern is The Lyrical Instruction Manual, wherein the title suggests a poet trying to explain something vital while doing bong hits: Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing,Eat When You Feel SadHow to Be AloneHow to Leave Hialeah (which, Google informs me, is near Miami, so the best way to leave is via I-95).  

In a similar vein, there’s the We Are Vaguely Included pattern, which always uses a pronoun with an unspecified referent, and often an inclusive pronoun: Most of Us Are Here Against Our WillEverything Here Is the Best Thing EverHere Is Where We MeetThings We Didn’t See ComingThings You Should Know. (That last one hits a kind of duofecta, as it could also be classified under The Lyrical Instruction Manual.

We Are Vaguely Included seems to show the influence of Miranda July, who has demonstrated talent in numerous genres while consistently formulating vaguely inclusive titles. July has a performance piece, Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About; a film, Me and You and Everyone We Know; and a story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Just typing these titles makes me feel like I’m at an extremely cool party where everyone, at some point or another, mentions their therapist. 

Even more lyrical vagueness can be seen in the What Is Unspecific pattern, wherein a title seems to be referring to something concrete but probably isn’t: What We AreWhat BecomesWhat Was LostWhat We Keepand, moving into Zen-koan territory, What is the What. Beyond that the only alternative is nonsense, like Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee. Or maybe we’ve come full circle. It’s only a short step from the title of Joshua Ferris’s latest, The Unnamed, to no title at all, aka, Untitled.

Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate that writers use these patterns only to reflect a kind of hipster ontology, or out of sheer laziness. Certainly it’s unfair to present the issue completely unsympathetically. Most writers, myself included, know how difficult it can be to come up with an interesting, original title. So perhaps the answer is to find a way around the whole business by using only one-word titles, like the writer and performance artist Andrea Kleine. Or to be lucky, like author Peter Manseau, who says that for him titles are “the easiest part.” All I know is that I felt immense relief when I started writing journalism, where titles are the editor’s problem.

Literary Selfie, 2022

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

It was a very tough year for all of us, what with the continuing political, social, and epidemiological upheavals. Here is what I managed to get off my desk anyway:


  • My short story, Winter Break, 1986, about family responsibility and the pickle business, was published in Scud.
  • The First Hard Fight, a short story about the Korean War, was in Cagibi.
  • I did a residency at Craigardan in the beautiful Adirondacks working on my Untitled Korean War Novel™. (Pic above was my workspace.)


So while the above output may seem small, I’m giving myself a “W” for 2022 in that I managed to publish while working full-time and being (mostly) present for my family and pushing forward on a novel draft after promising myself I’d never try another book-length manuscript again.

Hoping we all have an easier time, in writing and in life, in 2023.


Soldier using the latrine on the USS Meigs. Photo: Hanson A. Williams, Jr.

Author’s note: this story was originally published in a print-only journal, Newtown Literary.


They’ve got the whole regiment lined up at the Port of Tacoma, 22 July, 1950. Fifteen hundred men shouldering weapons and duffels, numbers chalked on their helmets, shuffling toward the General Darby. Hesh looks up in awe: the troopship is a horizontal skyscraper, the hull flaring upward to lifeboats, smokestacks, gangways strung like umbilical cords to the pier. He can’t get over the size of the ship, thinking, I’m going to Korea in this fucking thing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Straight Husbands and Fathers: It’s Time to Get Your Shit Together

Don’t be like this guy

Note: I pitched this piece to a few places and was met with silence. Rather than keep pitching and get paid somewhere between zero and and $50, I decided to post it here. Let me know what you think. —GH

Late in 2020, I noticed among female friends and colleagues a certain desperation creeping into their online messaging. There was fear about the upcoming presidential election, but also exhaustion, real exhaustion, mental and physical depletion from parenting and housework and their job (if they still had one). They were wondering when it would all end and how much more they could take. They were crying in their cars, or gaining weight, or screaming at their kids, or drinking too much, or all of the above.

These crises de coeur, by the way, were almost exclusively from straight married women. Which made me wonder: Where were the dads? Why aren’t they complaining?

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On Celebrating When Bad People Get Sick

Everyone around the world come on!

When a certain very famous and very horrible person got sick, a lot of people celebrated, and then a lot of other people said that celebration was inappropriate. 

Some fellow Jews, however, counterclaimed that it is perfectly appropriate to wish suffering upon horrible people. 

I wasn’t sure if that was correct, at least from a Jewish perspective. There are so many misapprehensions about Judaism, even among Jews themselves. 

I mean, we do have a holiday, Purim, when we celebrate the hanging of Haman, the guy who tried to kill all the Jews in Persia. (See Esther. The book, not some lady named Esther.)

There is also the Song of the Sea, שירת הים, which the Jews sang after the Egyptian Army drowned in the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), followed by Miriam’s pithier song:

Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

Sounds celebratory to me! 

Miriam looking smug

However, from the dim recesses of my memory, I recalled a discussion from Hebrew school of a passage from Talmud, Megillah 10b. Rabbi Yochanan claims that the when the Egyptians drowned, the angels wanted to sing. But God admonished them:

The work of My hands drowning at sea, and you say songs?

Meaning that the Egyptians were God’s creation as well, and it was inappropriate to celebrate their destruction. 

So the angels celebrated and were admonished. The Hebrews celebrated and were not. And the Torah is full of admonishment—cross the line, and God has no problem striking you with sickness or killing you outright. In the Torah, if God doesn’t want you singing, you’d know. You’d be a chalk outline. 

Okay, so it is permissible, for human beings at least, to celebrate the sufferings of horrible people. But the question was if it is appropriate.

Meaning: Is it a good idea? Does it set the right example for our peers? Our children? What impression does it create of us?

I am not asking the latter question out of fear. Some folks are going to hate us no matter what we say or do. But that doesn’t release us from the responsibility of thinking about what we say or do.

Nor am I wagging any fingers. Because I feel great that this horrible person is ill. I want to break out the timbrels and sing like Miriam.

So here is my conclusion. It is likely appropriate to celebrate the defeat of an enemy army. It is likely inappropriate, if not necessarily sinful, to celebrate when a person gets ill.

I, however, am not a big enough person to live up to my own conclusion. Make of that, and of me, what you will. 

UK English vs. US English

A client asked me for the main things to keep in mind when “translating” documents. So here’s an (ongoing) list.


  • US English titles capitalize all words except articles and prepositions: Sense and Sensibility
  • British titles are not capitalized: Sense and sensibility
  • But don’t forget to capitalize proper nouns in UK titles: The death of Ivan Ilych

Quotation marks

  • In the US, it’s double quotation marks:
    “Hey, that’s my sweater,” Fred said.
  • Single quotation marks across the pond:
    ‘Oi, that’s me jumper,’ Nigel said.


Everybody knows about adding the “u” — Americans have colors; Britons have colour. In a lot of latinate words, also, the American “z” becomes an “s” — organized to organised, etc. There is a great list here. But really the best thing is once the doc is finished, change the language in spellcheck to whichever English you’re using. It’s saved my ass (arse) more than once.

Certain words to look out for

  • While in the US, whilst in the UK.
  • P.S. in the US, PS in the UK (nice article on postscripts here).
  • Some other ones you likely already know:
    US elevator, UK lift
    US eggplant, UK aubergine
    US TV, UK telly

Grammar quirks

  • In British English, collective nouns take plural (“Arsenal are…”)
  • When speaking of possessions, Americans tend to use got when Britons may use have got:
    “I got a dog,” Murray said.
    ‘I have got a dog,’ Nigel said.

When writing fiction

Or drama or screenplays, I strongly recommend having a native read your work. It drives me nuts when British writers have an America say, “I reckon…” when they mean “I suppose.” I was lucky enough to have this novella I wrote about an American in England copyedited by an Englishman, and he saved me from some clunkers.

Literary Selfie, 2018

South Korea, October 2018.

When you work in the arts, you’re always second-guessing yourself, wishing you produced more, earned more, etc. That’s why at the end of the year I like to look back at what I accomplished. Because while usually it’s less than what I wanted, it’s often more than I had thought.

I realize that for many this practice smacks of attention-seeking or bragging, to which I say, “You’re goddamn right.”

Fiction. This year, I was lucky enough to receive a Queens Arts Fund grant, which helped me move forward on my novel-in-progress about the Korean War. I was very lucky indeed to have a residency at South Korea’s Toji Cultural Center (pic above), where I met some wonderful people and ate copious quantities of kimchi and tiny anchovies.

Religion Writing. I interviewed Arthur Jones, the Nazi candidate for Congress, for the Jewish Chronicle. I tried to wrap my head around Christian support for Trump and the high Jewish voter turnout for Religion Dispatches. I wrote about the dangers of ethno-nationalism, the Shared Sacred Sites exhibit and the Holocaust in Italy for the Forward. I reviewed Hulu’s Waco miniseries for Religion & Politics.

Teaching. Still having a blast teaching and doing some curriculum development at the School of the New York Times.

Dutch Kills Press. This year we published a print version of Jason Antoon’s wonderful collection of short fiction, The Cursed Frog and Other Stories.

If you’re still reading this post, wishing you all the best for 2019. Heck, I wish you all the best even if you’re not still reading. If there is anything you want to share about your own accomplishments in 2018, I’m all ears.

Five Questions for the Crazy Rich Asians

Look at these crazy kids
  1. Freedom House rates Singapore as “partly free” and its press as “not free.” Given that Nick’s family enjoys a leading role in Singaporean business affairs, is it reasonable to assume that the Young family is complicit with an authoritarian government?
  2. Given the conspicuous overconsumption of fossils fuels—via multiple helicopters, an Audi R8, a shipping vessel, and the like—is it fair to say that Crazy Rich Asians are not concerned about the dangers of global warming to the island nation of Singapore?
  3. About 10% of the population of Singapore is of South Asian origin. And yet the only South Asians in the movie seem to be either valets are bodyguards. Is this because they are not “crazy rich?”
  4. “Rainbow sheep” cousin Oliver is gay. And yet same-sex sexual activity in Singapore is illegal, even between consenting adults. Is Oliver’s effusiveness merely a cover for his sadness and fear?
  5. Thousands of foreign workers in Singapore have been paid less than promised, or not paid at all. Why does this not seem to be an issue for Rachel, an economist?

Happy birthday, Polska

My family on both sides came to America from Poland. But American Jews often don’t have a sense of the countries of their forebears. I grew curious about Poland, and after reading a few books I realized that it was (and is) a fascinating place—and that I really wanted to go there.

I was lucky enough to earn a Fulbright fellowship to Poland. I spent a year traveling, meeting people, and eating truckloads of pierogi. I wrote a book about it too. My agent at the time couldn’t sell it—according to one editor, it was “too Jewish for the Poles and too Polish for the Jews.” 

I thought about the manuscript when I remembered that today marks 100 years of Polish independence. So if you want to read it, I can send you an e-book, gratis. Just email me: gordonhaber at g mail.

It’s a portrait of a different time. Poland in the early 2000s had just entered NATO and was joining the EU; there was a sense of openness and optimism. It makes me sad to consider that’s gone now—but also feel grateful that I got to experience it.

Anyway hit me up if you’re interested.

The Honest Resume (updated for 2018)


Gordon Haber
Writer, Editor, Mediocre Guitarist


2002: MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from Columbia University if you must know, which I am still paying off.

1990: BA in English and Fine Arts (double major!) from a state school (Albany). My friends and I had fun.

Writing Stuff

Religion Writer for outlets like Religion Dispatches, Religion & Politics, Forward, Tablet, and Killing the Buddha. This is really interesting work: lately I’ve been looking at the intersection of conservatism, religion, and politics (clips here, here, and here; more clips here).

Fiction Writer of UGGS for Gaza, a collection of short stories and novellas about young (and not-so-young) people in varying stages of distress, which is a very funny and moving book that you should buy immediately. Currently working on stories about the Korean War. I also wrote a novel that a publisher tried to destroy, and if you buy me a drink I’ll tell you the whole painful story.

Business Writer of native content for the nice people at City Point and Rockefeller Center and German tourism. Also editing for an IT company, and a white paper on credit risk for a financial info company, among (many) other clients.

Teaching Stuff

Instructor at the School of the New York Times. Now, this is a fantastic gig because (a) all the students want to be there and (b) I get to teach creative writing and (c) I get to do a lot of fun stuff with the students like go to restaurants! And museums! And Central Park! 2016-present.

Adjunct College Instructor at various institutions of higher education in New York City and Los Angeles, which paid starvation wages but were often quite rewarding due to the students, which is a cliché but true, and there’s not a snowball’s chance I’m doing this ever again, unless you pay me three times as much. 2000 to 2014.

Publishing Stuff

Publisher and Editor at Dutch Kills Press, a micropress I started in 2013 to help get interesting work out into the world, such as:


  • E-Books. Making e-books, selling e-books, consulting about e-books, thinking that it might lead to a nice day job, but so far it’s only led to some extra income, not that I’m complaining.
  • Writing and editing. Like every other schmuck in New York.
  • Languages: Bad French, execrable Polish.


  • Fulbright Fellowship to Poland, 2002. One glorious year of traveling, note-taking and writing, which resulted in a travelogue that was rejected by 30 of American’s finest publishers.
  • MacDowell Colony Residency, 2007. Two glorious months in New Hampshire that I hoped would herald a new phase of my career, which it did not, although I did meet my wife and now we have a son, so it wasn’t like great things didn’t come out of it, plus I totally hung out with Michael Chabon.
  • Queens Arts Council Award, 2008, 2018. They give you money! For writing!

Professional Organizations

  • International Association of Religion Journalists
  • Religion News Association

Current Medication

  • One aspirin per day to prevent heart disease
  • Red wine
  • Xanax (when flying)


  • Global warming
  • Irrelevance
  • Clowns

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