Untitled Gordon Haber Essay

by Gordon Haber

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.