Over at Bloom check out this 3-part feature—a conversation and excerpts—on fiction writers-cum-memoirists Robin Black (If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, Life Drawing) and Natalie Serber (Shout Her Lovely Name)—former classmates at the Warren Wilson low-res MFA program, both later-life bloomers, and both “writing for their lives” in new memoirs.
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.
Back when I was a reporter at Premiere magazine, I attended a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Talk to Her, and received one of his famous press notes packages. Almodóvar is known for conducting “auto entrevistas” (self interviews), in which he asks himself pointed and occasionally self-flattering questions about his latest movie. For example: Q: From now on, we’ll have to say that as well as being a good director of actresses you’re also a good director of actors. The leading characters in Talk To Her are two men and the actors who play them are splendid. A: I’m delighted it’s you who’s said that. I remember being amused by these schizophrenic conversations, in which Almodóvar played both interviewer and interviewee. (I imagined the chatty Spanish director in a mad dash, back and forth between two chairs, swapping roles.) At the time, the whole notion of a self interview seemed absurd to me, but now I see the benefits. As Almodóvar put it, “The reason I interview myself is for practical reasons. I say what I want to say and in the fastest way possible. In any case, a self interview is a written piece and writing is always done in solitude.” I frequently thought of Almodóvar while working on the reading group guide for the paperback version of my nonfiction book, The New Kids, chronicling the lives of students at a high school for recent immigrants. Initially, my publisher assigned a freelancer to write a first draft of the reading group guide, which features an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing book clubs and classes, and an author Q&A. While it was a solid start, I felt that many of the questions could go deeper. So I pulled out two chairs (metaphorically speaking, of course), and set about interviewing myself, figuring that no one knows my book better than I do. Reading group guides can have the feel of an author’s conversation with herself, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your opinion of the author. In a troubled publishing industry, they can also be enormously helpful in selling a book to general readers as well as more specialized groups, such as book clubs and classes. In my case, the readers’ guide for The New Kids has played an important part in securing adoptions of the book by colleges, universities, high schools, and communities organizing common reading programs. It also has had the cool effect of inspiring others to write their own guides for my book. Recently, a high school teacher in Colorado who taught the book in her classes shared with me her own discussion questions that she had come up with for a New Kids curriculum. After years of being claustrophobically alone with my book during the writing stage, it has been a joy to be able to talk about it with real, live humans who have actually read it. Since the hardcover publication, I’ve been doing events, readings, and visiting book groups. But I can’t be everywhere all the time, and the reading group guide is a way for me to initiate my ideal conversation about the book with readers who keep the discussion going. As a journalist who has interviewed everyone from Colin Powell to Kim Kardashian, I am used to asking other people questions, but turning the focus on myself was a strange and reflective process that made me reconsider the very notion of what makes a “good” question. It also made me curious about other authors’ experiences writing or revising their reading group guides. So, I decided to ask a few. Amy Sohn, the author of Prospect Park West and Motherland, a novel being published in August, is used to interviewing herself for reading group guides — she has been doing it for 15 years. “The best thing about interviewing yourself is that there are no ‘gotcha’ questions!” Sohn says. “The second-best thing is that you can be certain the interviewer read the book.” Of course, not all authors interview themselves. Robin Black, who wrote the short-story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, shared a conversation she had with Karen Russell (Swamplandia) in her reading group guide. My friend Ransom Riggs answered his editor’s questions about his young adult novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, for his forthcoming paperback, which also will feature photos previewing the next installment of the series. And Melissa Walker, another YA author, worked with her publicity team to revise a readers’ guide that was sent out along with advance reading copies for her book Small Town Sinners, which deals with a teen growing up in an Evangelical community that is producing a Hell House. “I think the publicity department knew this book would create controversy, so they wanted to present questions that would ‘normalize’ me and also make the reader really think about the content,” Walker says. Some authors forego written questions altogether. Daniel Torday, who wrote The Sensualist, chose to provide suggestions for supplemental reading for his novella on a webpage created by his publisher. Frances Greenslade, who wrote the novel Shelter, also took the conversation online, providing a reading group guide on her website that includes a “soundtrack” of songs that appear in the book as well as discussion questions. “I call it ‘Questions I’d love to be asked if I visited your book club,’” she says. “I like the questions my publisher came up with for inside the book, but there are things I grappled with as I wrote the novel that I think make for interesting starting points for a discussion. It’s always the stuff that challenges us that is the richest vein for further exploration.” The authors I polled (myself included) represent several different genres, but we’ve all had a hand in creating our reading group guides for the purpose of enhancing the reading experience and inspiring discussion. Here is what we’ve gathered. Did you write or heavily revise your reading group guide, and if so why? Brooke Hauser: I asked my publisher to revise my reading group guide in part because I felt that some of the discussion prompts came off sounding like pop quiz questions instead of conversation starters. Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: I wrote the Topics for Discussion part of the guide — for the paperback—because my editor said we should start that way and they would make changes as necessary. As I recall though we just went with what I wrote. They also sent me an example from another collection they had published recently and that was actually a huge help especially with tone. To me, the questions I wrote don't sound like me at all—they sound like a readers' guide. Amy Sohn, author of Motherland: I revised my reading group guide for Motherland after it was sent to me for review, because I wanted it to reflect the questions I wanted the book to raise. Some of these questions were already addressed in the reading group guide. Others were absent. I also wanted to be careful not to give my readers any low-hanging fruit when it came to critiquing my work. I deleted questions I found facile. I edited preambles to questions that felt like misreads of my intention. Reader-reviewers can say whatever they want on bookselling sites, but when it came to the readers’ group guide I wanted to raise the level of the discourse. Understanding that I may not get the deep, thoughtful critical reviews I seek because book review space is shrinking, I saw the guide as a place to do something about it. To ask questions that engage literary tropes, metaphors, themes, doubling. Like most authors, I also heavily revise my catalog copy and synopsis and weigh in on what blurbs to use, because the copy ultimately reflects on me and I want to be sure it reads in a way that I'm happy with, a way that I can “own.” What are the components of your reading guide? Hauser: In addition to discussion questions and a Q&A, my reading guide features a section called Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion, in which I suggest activities for readers who want to engage more with the book’s subject matter. For instance, I suggest volunteering at a local office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that resettles refugees across the country. I also recommend visiting Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Sohn: Introduction, Topics for Question and Discussion, and Enhance Your Book Club. My book has a scene that takes place at a supper club or underground restaurant. One suggestion was for the book club to hold its own supper club. It’s fun to imagine some of the book groups taking these suggestions. Black: In my paperback, there are discussion questions, and there is also an interview of me done by Karen Russell. They make a good balance, I think. The interview Karen and I did is pretty craft heavy so for anyone who is interested in going a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing, it's there. The other questions, the ones I wrote, are more for readers who aren’t necessarily as interested in the writing process. There’s also a third element that isn’t in the book and doesn’t officially count, but I think is important: I heard so many times that book groups didn’t know how to discuss short stories that I put up a guide to doing that on my website. I know this isn't technically part of the book, but in some ways it has done more to make my collection seem approachable to book groups than anything else has. For any collections I write from now on, I will try to have something like that included as an appendix. Daniel Torday, author of The Sensualist: Instead of a traditional reading group guide, my publisher [Nouvella] and I decided it would be fun to do something to harness the great innovative powers of the Internet. To go with each copy of the book, we created a beautifully designed bookmark that has a QR code that brings you to a webpage with what we called “Supplementary Reading.” The book was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, I compiled some quotations from The Brothers Karamozov that directly influenced my writing — the book’s main character is named after Dmitri Karamozov, and the book takes its title from a chapter in The Brothers Karamozov, called “The Sensualists.” We included excerpts from those chapters, some stuff from André Gide’s great essay on Dostoyevsky, and something from David Foster Wallace’s famous essay on Dostoevsky. How did you come up with your questions and topics for discussion? Did you cull any from events, readings, or book club discussions in which you participated? Hauser: I’ve been asked some great questions about my book by readers, especially book club members who have invited me to participate in their discussions in person or via an email interview. So, when it came time to write my reading guide, I included a few of their best questions in an extended guide that I posted online. One of my favorite questions was about why most of the “main characters” in the book were students who either lived alone or had little parental guidance. That connection hadn’t occurred to me before a reader pointed it out. Sohn: My editor drafted the initial questions, and I added a few that were more thematic. The questions didn’t gel with questions I have been asked at readings because people who attend my readings ask incredibly personal questions: “Do you like being a mother?” or else want to know about how to get their own books published or get an agent. Frances Greenslade, author of Shelter: From visiting book clubs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that readers view the characters in Shelter very much as real people. I see them this way, too. So, I like to ask who they identify with most and why. Readers are quite divided on their sympathy for the mother in Shelter, for example. It’s interesting to explore those conflicting views of her. Black: I stole a few questions from interviews, just recasting them. And then I also threw in a few things that no one had ever asked me but that I wished they had. I also looked for common elements between the stories so the book could be discussed as a whole; and actually a couple of the ones I found surprised me—like that it’s a book about loss but almost nobody cries. When I realized that, I was curious myself about what other ways I had represented grief if there are so few tears shed—so I put the question in. What do you think makes a thought-provoking prompt? Did you ever find it strange interviewing yourself, if in fact you did? Hauser: My book is divided into three parts, loosely reflecting the arc of the students’ journeys as they adapt to life in this country: Passages, Between Worlds, and Almost American. At the eleventh hour, I panicked about the title “Almost American,” worrying it could imply the students were somehow “less than,” when really I meant that becoming American is in and of itself a journey (a legal journey or a psychological one, for instance). I thought about changing the title, but my editor convinced me not to, and I’m glad I listened, because it led to a great question: “What does it mean to be almost American? What does ‘being American’ mean to you?” Greenslade: I think the most thought-provoking questions come from comparisons with our own experience. I hope that reading broadens my view of the world and makes me look at my own firm convictions a bit differently. I like a book to unsettle me a little, so questions that peer into that unsettled feeling interest me. Questions about the characters’ choices and motivations usually lead to good discussions. Sohn: Every writer has her ideal review. This doesn't mean a rave. It means a review that looks at what the author was trying to accomplish and tries to weigh how she succeeded. I got a mixed review of my first novel, Run Catch Kiss, that nonetheless pleased me because it seemed to look at my intention: Did the book work as generation-specific satire? To me, a thought-provoking question is one that addresses the author’s goals and the subtext of the novel but doesn’t weigh in on the morality of the characters. I don’t find “Did you like or didn’t you like ___ character?” questions to be very insightful as a reader myself, though they make for lively discussions in book groups. I prefer “What is the author trying to say about _____?” or “How does ___ theme play out in the novel?” or “Where do you see the characters going at the end?” Black: I think thought-provoking questions are ones that help readers feel some creative ownership in the work. That means that the best questions have no definitive answers. You aren’t testing the readers’ knowledge of the work, you’re trying to get them engaged in discussion—which often means debate. So, I tried to look for points of ambiguity in my stories and direct the readers toward those. I didn’t exactly see it as interviewing myself. I saw it as a way of helping other people find a creative path into the work. That’s how fiction stays alive once it’s written. By having other people continue to wrestle with it, question it, as they read. I tried to craft questions with that in mind. Torday: The idea [of providing a reading syllabus online] was that presenting readers with material for book group discussion would be a more exciting prompt than being too heavy-handed in asking questions directly. The most exciting material we unearthed was a letter from Fitzgerald to his daughter, imploring her to read The Brothers Karamazov, which he called the “masculine influence” on The Great Gatsby. Here I had written a book in which the characters read Gatsby and then literally visit the site of a mansion in Baltimore where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived for years. And one of those characters believed himself to basically be a character out of a Dostoevsky novel. So, in a way, I guess the question in a traditional readers’ guide would’ve been just to point these facts out and say something like, “Isn't that cool?” or “I don't know what to make of that—what the hell do you make of that?” It seemed more fun, and apt, to simply present the material and let it do the work. Do you have any advice or tips for other authors writing their own reading guides? Hauser: One thing I learned through the process of revising my reading group guide is the importance of knowing your audience. In addition to book clubs, students at the graduate, college, and high school levels have read The New Kids. I tried to keep different age demographics in mind while coming up with prompts and questions. Black: Try to craft questions for which there are no definitive answers. Try to engage the reader in an imaginative process. And don’t forget that reading fiction has this oddly social aspect to it. Readers form relationships with characters, so it makes sense to have a question or two that recognizes that attachment, questions along the lines of: “What advice would you have given to so-and-so?” or “With which character would you most want have lunch? Why?” It can sound a little hokey, I guess, but I think it’s important to have questions to which readers with different levels of sophistication can relate. Sohn: Don’t talk down to your readers. Assume they read a lot and can engage with fiction. Think about what might provoke discussion but also think about what might provoke internal thought. Books move people. The readers’ guide should help readers to think and feel more deeply about the book. Greenslade: Questions should be open-ended, not easy to answer with a simple yes or no. Go with problems that engaged you as you wrote and turn them into questions. Try not to sound too much like a literature class. Image via Wikimedia Commons