Sunday, August 1, 2010

Judging a story by its title

They say, Never judge a book by its cover. They could add, Never judge a story by its title. Too true. However, in the attention-grabbing stakes either -- or both -- can really help to attract the potential reader. In my case, two recent stories had titles that said, Read me, read me. They are "The Creative Writing Murders" by Edmund White (in The Dark End of the Street) and "Advances in Modern Chemotherapy" by Michael Alexander (in Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August issue). So did they work, did the stories offer more than just an eye-catching title?

I admit that "Chemotherapy" may come across as the title of a paper in a medical journal. I guess that my previous existence as a biomedical scientist drew me towards this story. It begins with a run down of Larry's treatment for prostate cancer -- a list of drugs, essentially, and their side effects. Larry's on a new regime, a novel drug, with an interesting side effect: telepathy. But this telepathy is only available to patients in a similar position to Larry: they are all on the last leg of journeys to their deaths -- The Last Days Club. The story deals with the telepathists coming to terms with their imminent deaths and their new powers -- and trying to learn what they can do with Headtalk.

The story by Edmund White is set in an American university's creative writing department. It deals with Manuela, a tutor seeking tenure at the university. First, she needs to finish her book about the struggles of being a Latino in white America, which she really doesn't want to write. Maybe there is another way to obtain tenure? Then there are the other professors and tutors, including the supposedly gay Bert, head of the department; he's found dead, apparently by autoerotic strangulation. Bert is the first death.

Both stories start slowly, which is all wrong according to today's imperative to begin the story just as the action kicks off, to avoid the long build up. Mostly, I agree with that. But sometimes the quality of the writing, the style, transcends that and you quickly don't realise you've read a few pages of exposition. It also helps when the characters come over as real human beings, people you can empathise with. In both these stories, the title, style and characterisations all come together to form a near-perfect storm (as they might say).

There have been many other intriguing titles, not least "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" and "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", both by the inimitable Harlan Ellison.

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