John has many years of writing experience in poetry, short fiction and text for children's books. Basically, he just loves to write.
Good Book Titles vs Bad Book Titles
As writers we all know that a good (or bad title) can make or break our masterpiece. Just like the very first paragraph needs to capture the reader’s attention and make them unable to put the book down, and want to read further, without an eye-catching title the potential reader won’t even pick the book up and open the cover, let alone see the first paragraph.
We remember many of the classics and our favourite reads, due not just to the wonderful story-telling of the authors, but also to their catchy or unforgettable titles. Would books like ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread,’ and ‘The Great Gatsby,’ have been as successful and eventually be known as “classics” if the authors had decided to go with the original titles they considered?
In this first of two articles I will discuss some of the true gems of literature, looking at the alternative titles considered by the authors as compared to the final name they settled on, and that we came to be familiar with. What if they had gone with the first title they thought of?
15 Classic Book Titles ~ What If?
*These are listed in alphabetic order of the well-known titles.
1. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)
Williams wrote a number of fine novels and short stories but is most famous as a dramatist and for this play about a faded New Orleans belle. He puzzled over a number of names such as ‘Blanche’s Chair in the Moon,‘ ‘The Moth’, and ‘The Poker Night,’ before settling on the final title above.
2. A Walk On The Wild Side by Nelson Algren (1956)
This vivid portrait of Chicago’s underworld began as ‘Finnerty’s Ball‘ before being changed to ‘Somebody in Boots,‘ until, finally the publisher and author agreed on ‘A Walk on the Wild Side.’
3. All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (1974)
This was the book that exposed ‘The Watergate Scandal’ and brought down President Nixon. It was authored by two reporters from the Washington Post, and they may thank a lot of the book’s ultimate success to the name change from ‘At This Point in Time.’
4. Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace (1880)
This book started out as ‘Judah: A Tale of Christ’ and was written by an ex-soldier who became Governor of Utah. Just before publishing his editor suggested a simpler, catchier title would have more impact on sales.
5. Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1854)
Charles Dickens often struggled on deciding on titles for his novels. This tale of forgery, blackmail, and murder was no exception. The first title he came up with was the long-winded ‘ Tom-All-Alone’s Factory That Got Into Chancery and Never Got Out.’ Fortunately, he reconsidered that, first changing it to ‘The Ruined House,’ then ‘The East Wind,” before finally deciding on .. ‘Bleak House.’
6. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
Evelyn Waugh was an English writer of novels, biographies, and travel books, and was also a prolific journalist and book reviewer. This novel and perhaps his most famous work may not have had such great success under its original title simply called ‘The House of Faith.’
7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
This famous American anti-war satire, which ultimately provided a famous catchphrase underwent two changes of title before finally being published. It began as ‘Catch-14,’ then was changed to ‘Catch-18.” However, just before the final publication, it underwent a hasty change to “Catch-22’ so as not to clash with another upcoming publication ‘Mila 18’ by Leon Uris.
8. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Without ever having visited, Transylvania, the setting for his story, Abraham Stoker created arguably the most famous horror novel of them all. He did however make a quick title change just before the book was published. It was originally to be… ‘The Undead.’
9. Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940)
Though born in England, Chandler was the master of American hard-boiled detective fiction. He was well-known for changing the titles of his books but this famous Philip Marlowe story inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III was perhaps the most dramatic. It began life as ‘Zounds, He Dies’ but almost became ‘The Second Murderer’ and even ‘Sweet Bells Jangle’ before the final title was decided on.
10. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley when still in her teens. While they were living in Switzerland she penned a story about a scientist’s creation of a man-made being. It became one of the most famous horror novels of all time. However, before her husband’s suggestion of the title ‘Frankenstein’ she was ready to publish it as ‘Prometheus Unchained.’
11. From Here to Eternity by James Jones (1951
Jones was an American author who agonized over the title for this, the first of two great novels he wrote about life in an army camp during World War II. Names such as ‘If Wishes Were Horses,’ ‘Old Soldiers Never Die,’ and ‘They Merely Fade Away’ were among those rejected before he and his publisher agreed on the iconic ‘From Here to Eternity.’
12. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Mitchell spent years creating one of the most popular and influential novels of the 20th Century. With its American Civil war background this novel underwent a significant number of name changes - ‘Pansy,’ ‘Milestones,’ ‘Tote the Weary Load, ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day,’ and ‘Ba! Ba! Black Sheep’ before finally becoming the immortal ‘Gone With the Wind.’
13. Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Benchley’s novel about one man’s obsession to hunt for a killer shark was to become one of the most famous horror flicks of all time. The author had great difficulty deciding on a name for his novel and went through dozens of possible titles that included ‘What’s Noshing On My Leg,’ ‘A Silence in the Water,’ ‘Leviathon Rising,’ ‘Great White,’ and ‘The Shark’ before his father suggested the obvious but brilliant ‘Jaws.’
14. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
The great English novelist D.H. Lawrence struggled with selecting titles for many of his books. This classic tale of illicit love between classes was later prosecuted as obscene but had originally been intended to be called ‘John Thomas and Lady Jane’ - a title that may have evoked a little less attention.
15. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
This novel by a Russian author about a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a flirty young girl started out with a heroine named Virginia and the book to be title ‘Ginny.’ The author then decided for a time to change her name to Juanita Dark, before finally settling on the unforgettable-Lolita, and making the title of the novel the same.
Those listed above are just a few of the many famous stories/novels that have undergone name changes before hitting the shelves. Just imagine, if the first name thought of had become the final title. Would they have been best sellers? I guess we'll never know. In the next article, I will look at another fifteen books by well-known authors and the titles that were considered, and then scrapped.
Ernest Hemingway was another author who devoted a lot of time to find the perfect title for his stories. When asked about how he chose his titles he replied: “Sometimes I have as many as a hundred, then I start eliminating them - sometimes all of them.”
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 John Hansen