Title Your Novel in Three Easy Steps! or, The Abstraction of Abstraction

May 28, 2008 | 7 books mentioned 9

We’ve written about how difficult it can be to find a proper title for a work-in-progress. Lately, however, we’ve started to notice a certain trend that may make things easier on the budding novelist. Consider the following novels, all published within the last couple years: The Inheritance of Loss; The History of Love; The Story of Forgetting; The God of Small Things; and The Secret of Lost Things.

Certainly there’s some precedent for titling a work with the prepositional construction “The Blank of Blank.” (The Wings of the Dove, The Heart of the Matter, and The Nightmares’ forgotten R&B classic “The Horrors of the Black Museum…” come to mind, and and that’s just off the top of our heads.) Indeed, pairing a wispy abstraction with something surprisingly concrete can be a recipe for piquancy: Think of The Possibility of an Island or The House of Mirth.

The innovation represented by the recent spate of prepositional titles is the pairing of two abstractions. A writer willing to settle for the tried-and-true might consider recombining some of the nouns above to create a title for her manuscript, such as The Secret of God, The Lost Things of Small Things, or The Inheritance of History. But for the truly ambitious, may we suggest the following approach: roll some virtual dice, take the corresponding abstract nouns from Column A and Column B, insert a “the” (or two) and an “of,” and you’re off to the races!

Column A:

  • 1. Earnestness
  • 2. Persistence
  • 3. Irritability
  • 4. Malodorousness
  • 5. Malice
  • 6. Whimsy

Column B:

  • 1. Splendor
  • 2. Etiquette
  • 3. Particle Physics
  • 4. Numismatism
  • 5. Large Things
  • 6. Medium Things

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Kundera was really on his game with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although The Unbearable Lightness of Small Things has a nice ring to it as well.

    Here's my dice roll: The Malice of Ettiquette

  2. How about Ishiguro's THe Remains of the Day? With slight poetic license on your challenge, I offer two options:
    The Numismatist of Whimsy
    The Stench of Splendor (which has both assonance and a little alliteration, not to mention the flexibility of working for fiction or non-fiction. Imagine a history of the Gilded Age or a critique of Bushonomics)
    Garth's Mom

  3. Hilarious post. This trend reminds me of the general McSweeney's/Dave Eggers tone. 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,' anyone?

  4. I think I prefer the 1 concrete/1 abstract–a la The House of Mirth, but, rolling for a title to my dissertation, I find my fate lies in The Malice of Medium Things.

    Or, the Malordorousness of Splendor.

  5. What about the increasingly popular [Mystical Professional Title]'s [Relation], like The Time Traveler's Wife, The Alchemist's Daughter, The Magician's Nephew.

  6. How about that trend in film titles that used the formula "Gerund Proper Name"? That drove me mad after a while.

    Saving Private Ryan
    Being John Malkovich
    Losing Isaiah
    Finding Nemo
    Following Sean
    Understanding Jane
    Asking Jenny

    If they were really hip, they could have titled "Hannibal" "Eating Paul Krendler" instead. Except there was already an "Eating Raoul" in 1982. I must say, a title way ahead of its time.

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