The trouble with titles, continued

I’m just finishing Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, which Baltimore Bookworm already does a great job of summarizing.

Naturally, I’m especially interested in what Haidt has to say, for instance, about the uses of adversity in life (he gives an entire chapter to it), since that fits one of the impostors in my book.

But, since I can’t help but think about book titles these days, which you may have noticed here and here, I found myself lamenting the title that Haidt’s publishers forced on him. The book is not just about happiness, and hypothesis, no doubt meant to sound mysterious, is too academic to hit me in the gut. Instead, it occurred to me, there is a much more obvious title that Haidt’s publisher, Basic Books, could have chosen.

Haidt gives us, above all, a great extended metaphor for our psyche as consisting of a huge elephant  and a little rider on top. Hence the cover image you see here. The elephant is that part of our brain/mind that we’re hardly aware of but that is actually in charge most of the time. The little rider is our intellectual brain/mind, which evolved much later and which does its best to drive the elephant but most often just ends up having to go where the beast goes. In all those cases, the rider’s main skill is to confabulate (Haidt’s word) a story to explain to himself why he, the rider, really wanted to go where the elephant went. You see, he couldn’t possibly admit to himself that he, as mahout, is not in control. In other words, we are great at fooling ourselves. We do things for reasons we barely understand, and then retroactively concoct a logic that makes the action sound plausible, to ourselves and society.

So, if the metaphor was good enough for the cover image, why not for the title? In my opinion, the book should have been called:

The elephant and his rider: What really drives you, and why you lie to yourself about it.

(And, because this is the Hannibal Blog, one more reason why I like the cover image: This is how you must imagine Hannibal’s mahouts riding their elephants across the mighty Rhone river, while under attack from Gauls on the far side. Most of the mahouts drowned. But the elephants, natural  snorkelers that they are, made it across. Having crossed the stream thus, Hannibal was able to take them onwards to the Alps, and then…. well, you know. More about his elephants here.)
Bookmark and Share

The end of book publishing? Part I

So, I had a witty comment from Helen under the elevator pitch for my book, where she humorously suggests some titles. Perhaps Digesting the Elephant of Success, followed by something (anything!) starting with How to….


That, shall we say, touched a nerve, because my agent and I only recently sold the book and, well, I found myself at the receiving end of the various publishers’ reactions. Self-help? Biography? History? Business? What, oh what, aisle at Barnes & Noble will it go in? That’s what they need to have answered.

In another and separate post I’ll sound cautiously optimistic about the industry (if I weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be able to write a book), but I want to share what Helen then wrote in a follow-up email. She is, I should say, the great niece of a great author, Rebecca West, as well as the the executor of her literary estate. Book publishers, says Helen, …

… seem to be in an utter state of denial that they’ve succumbed to Hollywoodization big time, and instead go on pretending that the average editor would still risk his life to smuggle the mss of “Dr. Zhivago” out of Russia. Editors don’t edit any more. Neither do agents. And the whole business is bungled by the guys in the marketing department who would be quite happy to have a book of empty pages, if only the cover and title attracted enough attention, including an interview on Oprah. In the spirit of full disclosure, I say this as a novelist who got run round the houses all different ways with my first, ultimately unpublished, novel….

As a journalist, I move in circles where everybody seems to be writing books all the time, so the topic comes up a lot. Helen’s view is par for the course, I would say.
Your views? Leave it in the comments, or email me through the form at the bottom of this page.

Bookmark and Share

*Why the book does not have a title yet

*Alright, so I’ve given you this teaser about the book, and I had to give the page a provisional title. But Hannibal and me is not actually the title of the book. It turns out that several other authors are already using the and me conceit or some variation of it, so my publishers, Riverhead, pointed out that we’re in cliché territory, which is of course to be avoided.

Nor is my original idea, The Hannibal Curse, the title. It’s been explained to me that American publishers are very wary about any book title that could sound remotely negative, and Curse apparently fell into that category. So no Curses. Hannibal’s Impostor, Eternal Hannibal,… Who knows? Riverhead and I will agree the final title when I deliver the book, in a bit less than a year. As I joked to my agent, Dan Mandel, that feels a bit like agreeing to let the midwife christen your child at birth, but hey, it’s the way the business works. They’re apparently good at picking titles at Riverhead–think A Thousand Splendid Suns and such.

Bookmark and Share