June 2008

Arts & Letters

And you can too

By Gideon Haigh
Recent book subtitles

The mass of books lead lives of quiet desperation. Compared to the dowdy shops of yesteryear, the modern bookstore is a place of gaiety, even exuberance. But with essentially three months to make their mark before returning from whence they came, under Australia's self-devouring sale-or-return system, books must dress to impress: while they've got you - that is, while you're looking at them, perhaps fondling or flicking through their pages for a tactile acquaintance - they strain for maximum impact. Every publisher is after that dazzling image, that killer title; less obvious, perhaps, is the irresistible spread of the expository subtitle, now so subtly pervasive that non-fiction books going without seem undersold, even underwhelming.

Lately, in fact, subtitles have begun sprawling so intractably as to collapse under their own weight. For Charlie Wilson's War, George Crile just gets away with The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times. But Christopher Booker and Richard North have had to disaggregate Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us the Earth; likewise Tim Baker with High Surf: The World's Most Inspiring Surfers, Waveriding as a Way of Life, The Ocean as Teacher. So much ozone does Lawrence Solomon deplete in naming his climate-change screed The Deniers: The World Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution, and Fraud that he needs another breath before a footnote adding And Those Who Are Too Fearful to Do So.

Such subtitles attempt to make the books appear not just more important than they actually are, but more popular. It was Norman Mailer who commented that Americans were incapable of approaching a book that was not already a success, and the essence of marketing in publishing today is gilding titles with the aura of the bestseller before they have achieved, or even approximated, such status. The effect of browsing in a bookshop, as a result, has become like speed-dating a string of garrulous drunks. Psst: wanna know The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World's Greatest Company? Yep, that's me: Jacked Up. Let's get it on, babe.

The subtitle also operates as a trailer to a motion picture - albeit that just as some trailers leave you with the feeling of having already seen the film, so some subtitles induce a distinct déjà vu. Let's check the American politics section, shall we? Charlie Savage's Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. (Hmm.) Kevin Phillips' American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. (Wait a minute.) Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth: The Real History of the Bush Administration. (What's going on?) Craig Unger's The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War and Still Imperils America's Future. (Haven't I just read this?) Michael Moore's Stupid White Men ... And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! New Edition with Added Extras, Completely Updated, New Foreword: The Number 1 Bestseller. (Ah, now I get it.) Harriet Lamb's Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles: How We Took On the Corporate Giants to Change the World. (Next!) At its worst, the effect is a gobful of sententious clichés. For Al Gore's assault on prose, The Assault on Reason amply suffices: nothing is added by How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision-Making, Degrade Democracy and Imperil America and the World except the sense of a Nobel Prize fashionably squandered.

Once, of course, books had no need of such otiose elaboration. To stick with American politics, there once existed the cultural literacy that made possible titles like Nixon Agonistes, with its hint of Milton, and All the President's Men, with its echo of Robert Penn Warren. Critics, for their part, vouchsafed standalone titles of such solemn grandeur as The Death of Tragedy, A Gathering of Fugitives, The Evening Colonnade and Under the Sign of Saturn. Historians bandied around bald provocations like The Decline of the West, The Revolt of the Masses, The Making of the English Working Class and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Now it's easier to take a few rough swings, and hope that one connects. Actually, there is a parlour game in the making imagining what modern marketing might have made of various classics: say, Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason: Why Space and Time Are A Priori Intuitions, Why We Cannot Meaningfully Conceive of an Object that Exists Outside of Time and Has No Spatial Components, Why We Are Prohibited from Absolute Knowledge of the Thing-In-Itself ... And 101 Ways to Save the World (nobody will read long enough to learn that the last part is bogus); or maybe Plato's Republic: The Seven Habits of Highly Successful City-States (always use ‘seven': it's publishing magic). TE Lawrence was ahead of the curve with Seven Pillars of Wisdom, yet how much better than his original subtitle, A Triumph, would have been something like How I Rallied Arab Irregulars, Tied Down the Ottoman Empire, Masterminded the Capture of Aqaba and Damascus ... And You Can Too.

Or maybe not. It takes courage to stand or fall on a single line - and pulling it off has a certain brio. Many of the most noteworthy Australian titles are the more memorable for their lack of exposition. The Female Eunuch, The Lucky Country and The Australian Ugliness are unimprovable; any addition to A Land Half-Won, The Fatal Shore or Dancing with Strangers is unimaginable. Perhaps one day there will be an edition of Manning Clark's History of Australia amplified by Phar Lap Wins Twice: Better Than the Real Thing! But not yet.

It's also worth noting some of the books that have recently scorned further explanation, exhibiting their one-punch title almost as a badge of publishing potency. Richard Dawkins denounces The God Delusion and Tamas Pataki is Against Religion - nothing more nor less. Don Watson keeps it simple with American Journeys; ditto Les Carlyon with The Great War. Geoffrey Blainey offers A Short History of the World; Bill Bryson furnishes A Short History of Nearly Everything. Recent reprints of Paul Kelly's The Hawke Ascendancy and The End of Certainty have shorn them of former elucidations. For some authors, concision marks their graduation as a brand name. Neil Strauss had to bolster The Game, his book on sexual hustlers, with Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists; now in a position to assert that size doesn't matter, he plonks down Rules of the Game for the sequel. For others, it is a risky, but calculated, gesture of beguilement. A personal favourite of recent times has been Anna Funder's Stasiland: confronting but mysterious, foreign but familiar, and capable of being sung to the tune of the Richmond Football Club song.

Just to confuse matters further, some constructions that resemble subtitles shaken loose from their titles, such as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Everyman's Guide to Scientific Living and An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, are actually novels - perhaps this is a sign of the subtitle's increasing obsolescence, that it is now so worn out from overuse as to be readily amenable to parody. The trend is now so entrenched, though, that it even works retroactively.

One night after Irving Howe won America's National Book Award for his mighty saga of East-European Jewry in the US, World of Our Fathers, he was bailed up by a querulous female reader. Why, she upbraided him, had he chosen a title so obviously sexist? Far fairer would have been World of Our Fathers and Mothers. "Madam," Howe replied sternly, "World of Our Fathers is a title. World of Our Fathers and Mothers is a speech." Two decades later, a year after Howe died, the book was reprinted with the subtitle The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made - not just a speech, but a whole damn parliamentary debate.

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