I've been puzzling over Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the hefty (514 pages) debut novel by Marisha Pessl that made the cover of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review and has been widely reviewed (and gushed over) elsewhere. It's not the book itself that puzzles me; I haven't read it. Rather, I've been trying to figure out the title. From what I could glean from the reviews, although the book is set on college campuses, no physicists are harmed--or even mentioned--in it: one character teaches political science, another teaches cinema, and most of the other characters are students. I can't even tell whether "calamity physics" is a real field of study or just a couple of words mashed up for shock value or search-engine optimization. (If you know, please enlighten me.)
Here's the thing: If I hadn't seen the splashy review of Calamity Physics in the Times and had just come across the title in a bookstore, would I be likely to pick it up? Leaf through it? Buy it? (If I were a 23-year-old man, the answer is probably "yes": Judging from her author photo, Ms. Pessl is quite the looker.)
Book titles are a risky business, as Thomas Vinciguerra writes, also in last Sunday's Times. F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to name his 1924 novel Trimalchio in West Egg (a reference to the party giver in The Satyricon by Petronius). His editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins, demanded a rewrite. (Editors had more influence in those days.) The result was The Great Gatsby.
Margaret Mitchell went through many dreadful titles for her Southern saga--Tote the Weary Load, Not in Our Stars, Bugles Sang True--before settling on Gone with the Wind (from a line in an otherwise forgettable 19th-century English poem). Adolf Hitler had chosen Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice for his magnum opus. His publisher shortened it to Mein Kampf--"My Struggle." Today, a publisher might well have opted for the Fuhrer's first choice, possibly altering it to Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice and the Stupid, Cowardly Liars Who Pissed Me Off.
Today, authors (and their agents) have more control over their book titles. They're also exquisitely attuned to marketing trends. What else could account for the recent spate of one-word nonfiction titles (Salt, Cod, Longitude, Fiasco) and the endless "End of [History, Medicine, Faith, Poverty, Oil, Iraq]" books?
Here's another curious trend: Novels that include "...A Novel" in their titles. I counted six of them (Beautiful Lies: A Novel; The Brief History of the Dead: A Novel; et al.) out of the ten books in Amazon's "Best of the Year in Fiction...So Far." Is this coy? Ironic? Post-ironic? Are authors worried that readers can't discern the difference between truth and fiction? Are publishers worried that booksellers might stock these titles in the Memoir section by accident? Or the Calamity Physics section?
Movie titles follow trends, too. Duel in the Sun, Inherit the Wind, and All That Heaven Allows could only have come out of the florid 1950s. When Far from Heaven was released in 2002, the title tipped audiences that the film was an homage to the overwrought melodramas of half a century earlier.
As I write this, the buzz machines are humming in anticipation of this week's release of Snakes on a Plane, the horror film best known so far for its star (Samuel L. Jackson), its parody trailers (see here and here, for starters), and, of course, its nothing-to-hide title. Executives at New Line Cinema, doing what executives do in every industry (i.e., squelch originality in all its forms), wanted to change the title to Pacific Air 121. As Jon Stewart said to Samuel L. Jackson on The Daily Show Tuesday night, "I don't see that movie. You know who's in that movie? Meredith Baxter Birney. You know who's in Snakes on a Plane? Samuel L. Jackson!"
See you in the ticket line.
(Thanks to Betsy Burroughs for the Daily Show tip.)