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.
There is an almost gravitational pull towards farce — perhaps explaining why we descend into it — that draws everything from Congressional budget negotiations to the badminton competition at the 2012 London Olympics into its field. And yet farce also depends on the careful orchestration of systematic collapse, whether it be a badminton player guiding her shot into the net or a writer steering her fictions towards anarchy in a most orderly and exquisitely timed fashion.
This imaginative drive to bring farcical inevitability under control is both disciplined and, as G.K. Chesterston points out, romantic. In his defense of the “lighter and wilder forms of art,” Chesterton whimsically describes the “nameless anarchism” behind our desire for farce:
To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house, there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or sea-water, the clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato-field instead of a London street.
The descent into farce is thus an ascent into a higher imaginative realm, the yearning for a chaos more magical than the one that governs our lives.
Several recent farcical works have crafted this chaotic order to predictably entertaining effect. If you missed any of these the first time around, fear not. It is a minor readerly tragedy easily remedied.
1. Michael Frayn, Skios
In Skios, Michael Frayn, the author of the beloved theatrical farce Noises Off, set out to capture the same bustling comic energy in a novel. The plot involves Oliver Fox, a charming roué who on a whim decides to impersonate the keynote speaker of a European cultural conference taking place on a sun-baked Greek island. Fox is welcomed by the lovely Nikki Hook, who shepherds the impostor through the weekend’s events even as some part of her knows the dashing figure is too good — and good-looking — to be true. By a causal chain of events too complicated to recount here, Dr. Norman Wilfred, the real keynote speaker, adopts Oliver Fox’s identity only to be hounded by the latter’s scorned lovers and the scorching Greek sun.
In the novel’s first chapter, there is a description of the arriving plane carrying Oliver and Norman that aptly describes the farcical condition: “Too late now to alter what that was going to be. It was coming towards them all at 500 mph.” This inevitable force finds a particularly suitable target in the perfectly ordered and manicured grounds of the foundation’s retreat:
Everything was so at ease with itself, so delicately balanced, like the works of a good watch, or nature itself…It was a complete world, a miniature model of the European civilization that it existed to promote…
The very clockwork precision that makes this miniature world so balanced also makes it particularly primed for comic disruption. In one scene, Fox can’t remember the name of his cabin, all of which are named after Greeks. After shuttling among Xenocles, Theodectes, Menander, and Demosthenes, he convinces himself that Damocles is the right name. Oliver is wrong about the name but right in sense that Damocles is an apt figure for the farcical impostor who is always one false move, or unlucky circumstance, away from disastrous revelation. The least slip-up and the strings controlling the puppet show are severed, which is precisely what makes farce so exhilarating:“[Oliver] felt intensely alive, like a mayfly with only one day to enjoy it all.”
2. Penelope Lively, How It All Began
Penelope Lively’s How It All Began, which itself begins with an epigraph on chaos theory, is also structured around a merciless and uncontrollable causal chain of events. While Lively’s novel is best described as a comedy of manners, it originates by drawing on the accidents and “swerves” of farcical theater. The plot involves how the mugging of an elderly woman systemically “derail[s]” the lives of seven people. As the consequences of the mugging ripple outward, a series of personal, professional, and familial humiliations are “capriciously triggered” and meticulously chronicled by Lively.
How It All Began’s one true farcical character is a retired history professor, Henry, who is so quintessentially donnish that “you couldn’t invent him.” Some of the novel’s funniest scenes involve his doomed effort to host a TV program on Hogarth’s London for the BBC, whose executive is alternately fascinated and repulsed by the parodic don’s “awful appeal.” And yet his farcical status makes him an oddly moving figure of pathos as he muffs his lines and is mocked by youths hanging out on street corners. Among the seven people whose lives are disrupted by the mugging, one feels the most for Henry, whose harmless pedantry is exposed to the public’s — and the reader’s — enjoyment.
3. Dave Barry, Insane City
If you like your farce manic, pure, and pathos-free, then Dave Barry’s Insane City is perfect. The novel is set during the wedding weekend of a mismatched pair — the moneyed bride is a high-powered lawyer while the groom is a marketer who tweets about feminine hygiene products. The plot involves a lost wedding ring, Haitian refugees, and a stoned billionaire’s inventive, extravagant method of procuring late-night take-out. A sample sentence captures the spirit of the novel: “Any man fleeing from the police with three women, two children, and an orangutan is a friend of mine.” And that’s not even mentioning the flamingo suit and pirate ship.
4. Lucy Ellmann, Mimi
In the same manic vein is Lucy Ellman’s Mimi, a novel that stays true to farce’s etymologic roots — from farcire, to stuff — by packing in a romantic comedy, family tragedy, lists, music scores, a manifesto, and even a deli menu. The plot involves a neurotic Manhattan plastic surgeon who takes up with an free-spirited public speaking guru, Mimi, who in turn inspires him to start a feminist revolution. Ellmann’s is a frenetic, energetic style that attempts to will comedy into existence through sheer determination by deploying an army of exclamation marks, legions of italics, swarms of puns. Farcical in style if not in content, the novel feels somehow off, like a sentence with a dangling modifier. Unlike the concentrated zaniness of Barry’s south Florida or the delicate balance of Frayn’s circumscribed Skios, Mimi’s sprawl disperses Ellmann’s anarchic energy until it is too diffuse to provide a charge.
5. Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods
There is not a trace of Ellmann’s exuberance to be found in Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, a daring attempt to translate the bedroom farce into the boardroom. Her novel follows an entrepreneur who translates his particular sexual fantasy into a farfetched solution to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. For a fee, he supplies a company’s top earning workers with a perk that must break every OSHA regulation: anonymous sexual encounters with female employees specifically hired for the task. We learn all about the initial resistance to the idea, the hiring and implementation process and the ingenious contraption devised to back the undercover “lightning rods” into the bathroom’s handicap stall. With such a setup, the opportunity for farce abounds, but DeWitt seems more interested in pursuing her outrageous conceit with an equally outrageous affectlessness. The prose, by design, is as passionate as the sex, which is to say not very. Logic rather than Eros reigns. The real triumph is not in the satire of alpha-male behavior and female exploitation but in the novel-length commitment to so flat and eerie a comic vision.
6. Nathan Englander, “Camp Sundown”
Farces originated as brief comic interludes stuffed between longer, more serious fare. It is therefore fitting to conclude with two short stories, one from Nathan Englander’s collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and the other from Sam Lipsyte’s more recent The Fun Parts.
Englander’s “Camp Sundown” establishes a perfect farcical scenario — a geriatric camp in the Berkshires that “revives certain adolescent elements of human nature.” But the septuagenarians’ hijinks take a darker turn when several campers become convinced that there is a Nazi war criminal in their midst and resolve to bring him to justice. As the beleaguered camp director, Josh, puts it: “An old Nazi hiding in the Berkshires under the guise of a blue-toed low-sodium bridge-playing Jew. It is madness. It is too much to take.” Within the space of two-dozen pages, Englander pivots from the initial comic setup — and its pitch-perfect Jewish humor — to an unsettling and lyrical exploration of guilt, responsibility, and memory. The story ends gorgeously as the focus shifts from the old kvetches to the even older inhabitants of Camp Sundown, creatures who are immune from all human history and farce: “They watch those turtles on their slow march and behold those ancient creatures, shell-backed and the color of time, as they lower themselves, turtle upon turtle, disappearing into the stillness of the lake.”
7. Sam Lipsyte, “The Republic of Empathy”
Sam Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy” is a kaleidoscopic story narrated by different voices, including that of a drone. The first narrator, William, witnesses a shocking accident on a Manhattan rooftop. Two janitors are rehearsing a fight scene for their action movie when one falls to his death. The scene rattles William but teaches him a valuable lesson we too often forget: “It just reminds you of the fragility of everything…Especially the fragility of brawling on the roof of a very tall building.” Later, William falls victim to an equally senseless act of violence, inexplicably targeted by a roving Reaper 5, or as the central command puts it, “a truly mouthwatering piece of drone ass.” If there is a moral in this slippery tale, it is that the dearth of empathy leads to terrifying farce; to viewing people as nameless, impersonal falling objects; to an absurd state of affairs in which a “slightly chubby man in his pajamas standing on his lawn in the middle of the night” is a valid target for a hyper-sexualized drone with a “death-bringing ass and titties” and a “sweet armored bod.”
A year after declining to present the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the jurors went ahead and named a winner this year. Perhaps nudged by the North Korea’s mad, headline-grabbing sabre-rattling, the award has gone to Adam Johnson’s novel of the hermit kingdom, The Orphan Master’s Son. Nathan Englander and Eowyn Ivey were the other fiction finalists.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (The Millions Interview)
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell (excerpt)
Winner: Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall (excerpt)
The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn (excerpt)
Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt (excerpt)
Winner: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (excerpt)
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (excerpt)
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (excerpt)
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.