A STORY BY ANY OTHER NAME
by John M. Floyd
One of the few unpleasant things about writing fiction is that editors and publishers sometimes choose to change the title of an author’s short story or novel before publication. I’ve not met many authors who feel that the changed titles of their own stories are better than the original titles (I certainly don’t think mine were)—but those opinions don’t often matter a whole lot. Sometimes, in the case of a short story, the author isn’t even told that there’ll be a change, until after the fact.
Looking back over the seventeen years that I’ve been submitting stories to magazines and anthologies, I’ve found that about ten percent of my accepted stories have later had their titles changed by the editors. I’m not sure if that’s typical, but I do suspect that most short stories retain their original, untampered-with titles. And regardless of the odds, the possibility of a title change isn’t something I worry much about. Hey, if they’re willing to pay me for my story, they can do anything to it they want to.
Novels are a different matter. Unless a novelist is self-publishing, I’ve heard that he can almost expect to have his suggested title changed at some point in the pre-publication process. A funny thing happened recently, though. My friend Ben Douglas, who has published a number of mystery novels, told me that after having his first title changed, he didn’t put a lot of effort into selecting a title for the novel’s sequel. He decided to call it the first thing that occurred to him—Deadly Passions—because he knew the publisher would change it anyway. Instead, the publisher chose to go with Ben’s original title, and Deadly Passions it was, and is. Go figure.
Anyhow, here are a few well-known book titles that wound up being surgically altered. I’ve listed the original title first, followed by the final result:
Something That Happened – Of Mice and Men
Trimalchio in West Egg – The Great Gatsby
Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises
First Impressions – Pride and Prejudice
Sister Maggie – The Mill on the Floss
Strangers From Within – Lord of the Flies
Catch-18 – Catch-22
The Village Virus – Main Street
The Sea-Cook – Treasure Island
Tomorrow Is Another Day – Gone With the Wind
The Chronic Argonauts – The Time Machine
Stephen Hero – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Tenderness – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Salinas Valley – East of Eden
Twilight – The Sound and the Fury
Come and Go – The Happy Hooker
The Tree and the Blossom – Peyton Place
Before This Anger – Roots
The Saddest Story – The Good Soldier
Elinor and Marianne – Sense and Sensibility
Mag’s Diversions – David Copperfield
Poker Night – A Streetcar Named Desire
The Last Man in Europe – 1984
Paul Morel – Sons and Lovers
Mute – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
O Lost – Look Homeward, Angel
Kingdom by the Sea – Lolita
Mind and Iron – I, Robot
Cancer – Dreamcatcher
Return to the Wars – To Have and Have Not
Robotic Banana – A Clockwork Orange
All’s Well That Ends Well – War and Peace
(Note: In a few cases, what I’ve listed as the original title was just a “working” title used by the author, and sometimes I understand there were several titles considered by author and/or publisher before the final one was selected.)
By the way, here’s one way to feel better when the Powers That Be decide to change your well-thought-out title for your short story. (At least this is what I do.) Let them call the story whatever they like, and when the time comes to later submit that story someplace else, as a reprint, just submit the story to the new market under your original title. I’ve sold dozens of reprints that way, and the magazines that use them never seem to care a whit that those stories were called something different in their previous lives.
Getting back to my above list of novels, do you think all those changed titles sound better than the originals? If so, are they really better, or is it just that we’re already so familiar with the final titles? I think the same thing happens if you consider the producers’ or studios’ first choices for movie roles. Even if I squeeze my eyes shut and strain, I can’t see Frank Sinatra as Dirty Harry Callahan or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones – but they were among the actors who were sought to play those characters, and who (thankfully) declined.
Maybe those final titles were meant to be. Let’s face it, Summer of the Shark just doesn’t blow my skirt up. But Jaws?
BUMbumBUMbumBUMbum . . .