It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
Someone like me — who reads all the time, every day of every week of every year, famous among my family and neighbors who never read and so gently make fun of me when we’re in the parking lot of a playoff game or in the bleachers or at the hospital holding vigil for yet another relative dying far too young – needs a reading companion. I never thought it would be a daughter, but my eldest, at 23, who lives in Texas now, is that. We trade novels, send each other books in the mail, and talk about them as if we were friends – which we are not. She is my child, the one who learned to read at three and never stopped – exactly what I did.
But she is not home.
This year, we were obsessed with women mystery writers whose work we stayed up late to finish – Kate Atkinson, Denise Mina, Tana French (English, Scottish, and Irish!) as well as Laura Lippman’s first Baltimore novels.
This year, I read Clarice Lispector for the first time, which was rewarding and intellectual work.
But the words which affected me most, the stories I discovered accidentally and thought about all year, were from Tennessee. Short stories. The form everyone sighs about as if it will expire. No. Uh-uh. Not at my house.
In January, in the library, running my fingers along the spine for Ernest J. Gaines, since I was going to teach two of his novels and wanted extra copies for students with no money, I paused at William Gay. I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. And that is what I read over and over, all winter and spring. Those stories! An old man banished to a retirement home and coming back to his farm in rural Tennessee, where the fence posts and mist and woods and fields are like heaven to him, his son trying to dislodge him because he’s rented the place to “poor white trash,” the epic battle featuring a taxidermied dog and flammable liquids. Another old man, burden on his son, a murderous fighter who’s lost his memory but not his cunning and anger, and Gay’s descriptions of his mind and bludgeoning strength somehow lyrical. A younger man — a paperhanger — a suitcase, a small child, a death, and a mistake.
Gay’s prose speaks for itself:
It came to him that he was a repository of knowledge that was being lost, knowledge that no one even wanted anymore. The way the earth looked and smelled rolling off the gleaming point of a turning plow, the smell of the mule and the feel of the sweat-hardened harness and the way the thunderheads rolled up in the summer and lay over the hills like malignant tumors and thunder booming along the timberline and clouds unfolding in a fierce and violent coupling and seeding the furrows in a curious gift of ice that lay gleaming in the black loam like pearls.
That is the old man, returned to his own farm and relegated to the tenant shack. He may remind my daughter of her own grandfather in Oklahoma, or it may just be that even I feel this way now – that what I learned as a child is now extraneous, except to my memory.
William Gay had left Hohenwald, Tennessee, his birthplace, to live in Chicago and New York, but he returned home in 1978 and never left again. I left my home in California that year, was gone briefly, and returned in 1984, and will probably never leave. I read those stories every night, envisioning a writer who returned to his small unremarkable birthplace which was peopled and haunted with hundreds of stories, as is mine. He made his place magical and frightening and indelible, which is what I always hoped to do. In February, he died there, in Tennessee, just after I finished the stories for the first time, and began to read them again.
I returned the library book. I missed it. This week, I’m buying a copy for my daughter, to send her for Christmas. Gay’s people, though white men from rural Tennessee, will remind her of her own uncles and friends from here, the place she left, the library where I was so lucky to touch a spine and stop. William Gay’s fencewire and porches and people.
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In answer to a question at the Clarkesville Writers Conference in 2010 about how his life has changed since he’s achieved literary success, William Gay said, “If I hadn’t wanted to be a writer so much, I’d probably still be married […] It was like being Pa Ingalls in ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ and then suddenly I was going to writers’ conferences and that kind of stuff. It was pretty jarring, to be honest about it.”
Gay was 55 years old, in 1998, when his first stories were published in the Georgia and Missouri Reviews. An editor at the Missouri Review who had publishing house connections asked if he had a novel, and he did; in 1999, Gay’s first novel The Long Home was published by a small press in Denver. He’d been writing since he was 15 years old. In the intervening years, he’d been in the Navy, lived in New York and Chicago for short periods of time working in factories, then returned to his birthplace of Lewis County, Tenn., where he worked many years as a construction worker, carpenter, and house painter. He has lived in Hohenwald, Tenn., five miles from where he was raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, for some 30 years now.
Gay’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The Atlantic, Southern Review, and the Oxford American, among others, and have been widely anthologized. He has published two additional novels, Provinces of Night and Twilight, both to critical acclaim. (Provinces of Night was made into a movie, Bloodworth, starring Kris Kristofferson, in 2010). He has been referred to as “the Faulkner of Tennessee”—high praise for someone who cites Faulkner as the writer about whom he feels this way: “Sometimes you read something so good that you want to break your pencils… you feel sad because you know you’ll never be that good […] but at the same time you feel good because someone else did it and you can read it, it’s in the world.” Critics place Gay’s work firmly in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, with Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe (one of his earliest influences), Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. He is also often compared to Cormac McCarthy (the epigraph for Provinces of Night is from McCarthy’s Child of God)—if for no other reason because of his omission of quotation marks around dialogue: “If you don’t have the quotes, it’s just more natural to me, it’s just part of the narrative. Also, when I read The Orchard Keeper I noticed that Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotes either; so I figured it was okay.” (In his review of The Long Home in 1999, Tony Earley suggested that Gay was in fact overly imitative of McCarthy to his detriment.)
“You Southerners. I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ll never understand you,” says young Fleming Bloodworth’s English teacher, Mr. Spivey, in Provinces of Night. He is a lonely man, and a cripple, but is offering to “help” the boy (in whom he sees a burgeoning intelligence) through his family troubles. “We do just fine on our own,” Fleming replies. So Gay establishes the sense that the South is a world unto its own, that the outsider will always have limited access, will never know. Reading Gay you get the sense that he wants you to simultaneously live in his world but also respect its sacred ground from your proper place (even watching him read at the Clarksville Conference on YouTube felt a bit voyeuristic). Like Spivey, I find myself deeply drawn to the tragedies and ecstasies of rural Southern life, and yet not quite worthy of full access, of the kind of ownership that as readers we want to claim when we love certain books.
For better or for worse, I experience Gay’s vision and talents as transcendent of regional bounds; unlike the reviewers at Publisher’s Weekly, who wrote that his 2002 story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down “confirms his place in the Southern fiction pantheon,” I would not include the word “Southern” in that assessment, if it is meant in some way to put limits on the emotional and spiritual reach, or literary prowess, of Gay’s fiction. Such valuations needn’t, at any rate, represent either/or delineators; while Gay himself might prize being considered among the Southern greats, his stories of desolation and beauty—brimming, yes, with the familiar Gothic elements of violence and darkness of hearts—feed and trouble our souls, whether or not we come to the text already knowing the “timeless tolling of whippoorwills […] both bitter and reassuring,” or have passed ugly nights in a honkytonk, or keep a rifle or a pistol (or both) under the bed (as most of Gay’s characters do). “You need to know what a man’s capable of. You need to know what things cost,” says a character in the story “Crossroads Blues,” and this for me captures Gay’s literary-existential universe. To this reader, Gay is essentially a romantic writer, who sees the full range of humanity’s nobility and evil in the doings and beings of his mid-century rural Tennessee—bootleggers, veterans, farmers, carpenters, pimps, whores, fathers and sons and murderers and thieves (especially), squatters, musicians, porch-rockers, drifters, and hunter-gatherers. “Well,” said Gay, both shrugging and off and enjoying the comparison, “I guess Tennessee needs a Faulkner.”
But back to those rifles and pistols.
If you are new to Gay, you might do well to start with his short stories, collected in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (The Free Press, 2002) and also in a slim, self-published (or locally-published, it’s not quite clear) volume of just two stories called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. A murder lurks in the recesses of every story—often by gunfire, though not always; sometimes homicide, not infrequently canicide. Gay likes the murder as a secret that a person carries around like a talisman, a confession that emerges late in the story: You need to know what a man’s capable of. But Gay manages—without trivializing the act of murder exactly (though the sheer frequency of it does give a non gun-toter pause)—to make each story, each life, about much more, about something other, than moral judgment. In Gay’s universe—in his landscape that is at once wild and wasted and Arcadian, where scoundrels bury their gold in fruit jars, and both the guilty and the innocent vanish from the face of the earth without a trace—a man kills for a clear reason, or for no apparent reason. Either way, a dark, compelling mystery brews.
For Gay, the killing itself seems to be both the least arresting, and the least verifiable, of acts: In “A Death in the Woods,” a woman’s lover is found dead in the nearby forest, the death ruled a suicide. Her unknowing husband puts the pieces together, then confronts her:
“What made him do it? Did he get in over his head and you brushed him off? Did he break it off and you were about to tell his wife? Or did you shoot him yourself?
She went on serenely packing clothes […] I sort of got the impression that that sheriff thought you knew a lot more than you were saying. Perhaps you did it yourself.”
In “The Paperhanger,” a disturbed man confesses to his former employer that, years before, he killed his wife (and dug up a grave in which to toss her body) after learning of her affair with her boss.
The doctor’s wife didn’t say anything. She just watched him.
A grave is the best place to dispose of a body, the paperhanger said. […] A good settling rain and the fall leaves and you’re home free. Now that’s eternity for you.
Did you kill someone, she breathed. Her voice was barely audible.
Did I or did I not, he said. You decide. You have the powers of a god. You can make me a murderer or just a heartbroke guy whose wife quit him. What do you think? Anyway, I don’t have a wife. I expect she just walked off into the abstract […]
And in “Wittgenstein’s Lolita,” Rideout, whose wife cheated on him, and Rebekah, whose husband beats her, begin an affair. They tell each other their sad stories: “In time to come Rideout would decide that everything that happened grew out of the stories they told each other […] Threads from one tale crept to another and bound them as inextricably as a particular sequencing of words binds teller to tale to listener.” Rideout tells Rebekah that his wife and her lover were found dead in the woods. The lover’s wife later brought out a letter her husband had sent to her describing a murder-suicide pact the two lovers had planned, since the wife wouldn’t give him a divorce.
Or maybe, [Rebekah] said.
Or maybe what?
Maybe Ingraham did write the note and send it to her but then changed his mind. Wised up and wasn’t going to use it. Maybe she kept the note and did it herself.
Rideout shook his head […] I told you the story, he said.
You told me a story with too many possible endings, she said. She was smiling at him. Maybe it happened just the way you said. Or maybe she did it. Or maybe you wrote her the letter and killed them yourself.
Too many possible endings. Too many threads and tales. If I killed someone, what does it mean? What does it make me? If I am lying, what does it matter? What if you did it? Could you have done it? No one in Gay’s stories really deserves to live, and yet some do; as for those whose lives have been brutally abbreviated, why, the reader wonders disturbingly, should we care? What do we really know, or believe, about the people with whom we are intimate? How do we decide what is true; or do we decide at all?
Gay’s women shoot to kill, too; although I won’t get into that, because, well, it would spoil the stories, violate the secrets. Mostly the ladies of Lewis County are cold-hearted and restless, whores and heartbreakers; and a man can’t live without them. The paperhanger’s employer, the wife of a wealthy doctor,
flirted with him, backed away, flirted again. She would treat him as if he were a stain on the bathroom rug and then stand close by him while he worked until he was dizzy with the smell of her, with the heat that seemed to radiate off her body. She stood by him while he knelt painting baseboards and after an infinite moment leaned carefully the weight of a thigh against his shoulder […] He laughed and turned his face into her groin. She gave a strangled cry and slapped him hard […] You filthy beast, she said.
When making love to his cheating wife in “A Death in the Woods,”
Marvelously, his hand passed through [her naked breast] into nothing, past the brown nipple and the soft flesh and the almost imperceptible resistance of the rib cage and into a vast gulf of space where winds blew in perpetuity and the heart at its center was seized in bloody ice […] she was a ghost, less than that, like nothing at all.
It is not uncommon for Gay’s women characters to agree to have sex with their jilted, supplicating ex-husbands/boyfriends for money; in each case it is a crossroads, a test failed, a moment of reckoning. It is the moment when a man realizes he’s been looking for love in the wrong place.
Interestingly, the final story of I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down portrays a profoundly beautiful, albeit tragic and forbidden, love between a man and a woman. Here, the woman is given to us as courageous and fully human:
He thought for a moment her eyes looked frightened then he saw that more than fear they showed confusion. She looked stunned, as if life had blindsided her so hard it left her knees weak and the taste of blood in her mouth. He wanted to cure her, save her, jerk her back from the edge as she’d tried to do for him.
We note the hard turn in Gay’s depiction of a female character, and yet we are not jarred by it; his reverence for Woman and for love of Woman has been there all along, but buried deep and seen through the unlovely distortions, the darkened lens, of a romantic whose guts have bled nearly dry.
The only divine laws in Gay’s Tennessee are those of the natural world, both harsh and merciful. A vast stretch of wild acreage called The Harrikin (the name originated from “hurricane” after a storm ripped through the place in the ’30s) features prominently in the action and in the characters’ inner landscapes. Company-owned and once mined for iron ore at the turn of the century, by the ’20s and ’30s the iron ore dried up and the work with it. Shacks that served as living quarters for workers, mining machinery, a post office and a commissary, dangerous mine shafts—all of it was abandoned and never redeveloped or sold. “No one lived there, and there were miles of unbroken timber you couldn’t work your way through with a road map in one hand and a compass in the other” (from “Sugarbaby”). It’s a wilderness in every sense, a place to where characters flee when pursued, where fringe types have been forced to dwell provisionally; and it must be ventured and crossed en route to freedom, or at least the elusive idea of it. Finis Beasley, the old-timer in “Sugarbaby” who is fleeing the law because of a domestic dispute (guns, women, dogs), is someone who knows just what the Harrikin threatens and offers: “miles of uninhabited woods smothered in rain and darkness and he drew a small bitter comfort from it.”
And that bitter comfort sought by characters like Beasley—along with other old-timers who want nothing more than to hold on to what little they have and to die as they lived—is at the heart of Gay’s moral vision. In this hardscrabble world, the only sense of “right” that I can detect is rooted in dignity, the entitlement of independence after a long, hard life; what’s “wrong” in the world (the law, the government, and those who hold power therein) is how everything conspires against the stubbornness—Gay might say moral core, or staying power—of an imperfectly decent man. If ever there was an author that, say, a liberal politician representing urban America might like to read for an inside-out understanding of backwoods libertarianism, Gay just might be the one. The law isn’t working for these folks, it is primarily a tool of dispossession and greed; when faced with a choice—be stripped of what matters to you and keep what doesn’t, or else throw everything over—a man behaves in extreme ways.
Critics of Gay cite his sometimes high Latinate prose, which we see mostly in passages where consciousness and the natural world layer together, as “overinsistent” and “self-conscious” (Charles D’Ambrosio, Paste Magazine). For example:
Here the weary telluric dark past and present intersected seamlessly and he saw how there was no true beginning or end and all things once done were done forever and went spreading outward faint and fainter and that the face of a young girl carried at once within it a bitter worn harridan and past that the satinpillowed death’s head of the grave.
Regarding plot he has been said to “overplay his hand” (Richard Bernstein, New York Times). Art Winslow wrote in 2001 that Gay shared Wolfe’s and McCarthy’s “propensity to risk overrichness.” For some readers, yes, all this overage will be a turnoff, minimalists beware (although D’Ambrosio does praise Gay’s more colloquial prose, which often comes in the form of “keen” and “bleakly funny” dialogue).
For this reader, ultimately, “risking overrichness” is code for “desperately in love with words,” and “overplaying” the expression of a world view that sees high drama and profound connectedness in all things. In Gay’s hands, these add up to a book as a living, affecting, devastating thing; well worth both his risk and ours. It took 40 years for his world and his words to reach the rest of us. Perhaps “late,” perhaps right on time. The patience that develops from such a journey is evident, however: at the Clarksville reading a woman said that she hoped his fourth novel, The Lost Country, publication of which has been delayed for over a year, would be published soon. Gay responded, simply, “Me, too.”