Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Romance Reader as Connoisseur (2): Book Titles

I’ve been thinking about book titles since I wrote about Moira Manion’s comments on the titles of Harlequin Presents. Then Robin, in a review at the Smart Bitches said that ‘Rarely do I pay much attention to Romance novel titles; if not downright offensive, they’re often inane and rarely informative’. However Ro, a poster at AAR, commenting on this subject, gave a list of romances due for release in the coming year and said something that sounds like the complete opposite of what Robin had said:
--Wild and Wicked In Scotland
--Two Weeks With A Stranger
--Sinful Between the Sheets
--Too Great a Temptation
--The Sinful Nights of a Nobleman
--The Wicked Games of a Gentleman
And so on...
Whatever happened to those one word titles: "Scandal", "Desire", and what not? Now, the titles tell the entire story! (my emphasis)
So, who’s right? Do the titles ‘tell the entire story’ or are they uninformative?

Some (but not all) titles do indicate something about the setting (e.g. Scotland), protagonists (e.g. a stranger, nobleman or a gentleman) or the plot (temptation, two weeks), and a couple of them seem to me to indicate that the books are historical romances. Whether they’re truly ‘informative’ in the sense that they tell us a lot more than that, however, is another matter. And I don't know why there needs to be so much use of terms which originally had a spiritual meaning (sin, wicked etc). It’s a pet peeve of mine, no doubt due to studying a bit of theology and plenty of medieval texts where ‘temptation’, ‘wicked’ and ‘sinful’ were words which were not designed to entice, but to cause fear in the reader: I haven’t caught up with the idea that these words now sound enticing and delicious. It reminds me of the diabolical spin-doctors alluded to in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, who work steadily at changing the meaning of words. Screwtape, a senior Devil, is writing to his nephew, a junior Tempter:
Puritanism – and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life. (1945: 55)
But I digress. So, back to romance titles. Looking at the pile of 10 Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances I chose at random recently from the library, it seems to me that their titles are informative, though they may be ‘offensive’ or misleading to some. Here’s the list. I hope it’s not too boring, but without giving examples, I really don’t think I can show how informative the titles are.

Contracted: Corporate Wife, by Jessica Hart (2005). Tender Romance
This suggests to me that this will be an office romance, involving businesspeople, and indeed, the heroine is the hero’s PA.

The Marriage Adventure by Hannah Bernard (2005). Tender Romance.
I’ve already blogged about this one, and at the heart of it is the struggle for control of the heroine’s family’s adventure holiday business.

The Five-Year Baby Secret
by Liz Fielding (2006). Tender Romance.
This one’s really obvious. It’s about a secret baby, and the baby is now a 5-year old.

The Bridal Chase, by Darcy Maguire (2005). Tender Romance.
There is a fair amount of chasing, with the heroine at times chasing the hero, and then she’s in retreat and he’s chasing her.

A Most Suitable Wife, by Jessica Steele (2005). Tender Romance.
The hero begins by believing that the heroine is completely unsuitable, only to realise that he was completely wrong and she’s perfect for him in every way.

Baby of Shame, by Julia James (2005). Modern Romance (this is the equivalent of the Harlequin Presents line).
I think the difference in title between this and The Five-Year Baby Secret is an indication of the difference between the two lines. In the Modern Romance/Presents line, there’s a lot more dramatic conflict, and that’s reflected in the title. It is, of course, another secret baby story, and the heroine is an unmarried mother.

The Mancini Marriage Bargain
by Trish Morey (2005). Modern Romance
The use of the name, Mancini, indicates there’s an Italian hero. The words ‘marriage bargain’ suggest a marriage that is not a love-match.

Blackmailed into Marriage
by Lucy Monroe (2005). Modern Romance
Another marriage which is entered into for reasons other than love. In this case the heroine’s family give her no option but to marry.

Mistress to a Rich Man by Kathryn Ross (2005). Modern Romance
I discussed this title in a previous blog entry. It’s not about a mistress, but the heroine has sex with the hero before either of them realise that they’re in love, and he’s rich.

Exposed: The Sheik’s Mistress
by Sharon Kendrick (2005). Modern Romance
Another not-really-a-mistress, but a relationship which, it appears, is not likely to lead to marriage, and the hero is a sheik. The ‘exposed’ part of the title refers to the fact that the affair becomes public knowledge thanks to reports in the media.

As mentioned before, authors usually don’t have control over the covers their books are given, and often they don’t even have the final say on the title. Betina Krahn and Candace Schuler, for example, have recently mentioned their least favourite covers, each of which included a title that wasn’t the one they'd originally thought of. How the editors and art departments make these decisions is a subject about which I know absolutely nothing, but I’m sure it must be because they think certain titles will be more appealing to the target audience. And I wonder if a large part of the appeal of titles like the ones mentioned by Ro, and those of the Harlequins I listed, is that they help the reader make a selection quickly.

So, to conclude, I think the titles usually indicate at least one of the following: the profession/status of the hero and/or heroine; the setting; the type of relationship (e.g. arranged marriage, a ‘mistress’ i.e. sexual relationship not entered into with any expectation of it leading to marriage); an important element of the plot (e.g. secret baby). All of this is information which the connoisseur reader of romances will understand and use when making a quick selection at the shops or the library.

Anyone got any favourite, or least favourite titles? Do they describe the book well? Do they entice you to read the book? And do they make it easy for someone browsing the shelves to tell that what's inside is a romance?

----
Lewis, C. S., 1945. The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, The Centenary Press).

8 comments:

  1. If you think, as I do, that infants have no place in romance, then the word "baby" in the title is a helpful negative trigger. Likewise a picture of a baby on the cover. I'd say words like "mistress," "scanda," and "secret" probably have a greater titillation factor than "wife" or "bride," which sound more staid and conventional.

    But I'm guessing it's a combination of title, cover, and blurb that all inform the connoiseur's choice. I always open the book to see what size the type is, too. Seriously. Anything bigger than about 11pt and it's back on the shelf. But that's more a value for money thing in the age of $7.99 paperbacks. At those kind of prices, I'd like it to take at least 2 hours to read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of my favorite titles is "A Bride Most Begrudging" (by Deeanne Gist). It gives a hint of marriage of convenience/arranged marriage, while revealing a bit of the feisty nature of the heroine.

    ReplyDelete
  3. j as in jennifer15 August, 2006 22:22

    If I had to judge any of these books by their titles alone, I wouldn't buy them. "The Bridal Chase" and "A Most Suitable Wife" are the best of the lot. Really, if I had to come up with satirical names for romances, I couldn't do much better.

    How about:

    "The Sultan's Supposed Slut"? (In which the heroine turns out not to be a slut at all, but a really nice girl with family values.)

    "Virtually a Virgin" (That's a book you want to crack open, I know!)

    "A Bustle Full of Lust" (A vuluptuous novel of Victorian England.)

    "The Mysterious Millionaire's Martyred Marxist Mistress" ("She found a capitalist pig to Socialize. He found a Revolution between her thighs...")

    "The Millionaire Texas Playboy Politician, the Schoolmarm and the End of the World as We know It." (An nail-biting thriller with terror plots, Elvis-impersonating villains and freak hurricanes... but, above all, a love story.)

    How could I even bring myself to read "Baby of Shame"? "Wild and Wicked in Scotland"? It's full of Presbyterians. It should have been "Wild and Wicked in Wales."

    I really prefer when titles keep it simple, like The Noun and the Noun, or The Adjective Noun. Or a title that seems mysterious, like "Touch Not the Cat," one of my favorites by Mary Stewart. Then there was "The English Heiress" by Roberta Gellis, which fooled you because the heiress was actually French!

    On the other hand, the titles you mentioned are as good as caution signs, so I know I probably won't be missing anything soul-stirring.

    ReplyDelete
  4. . . . and often they don’t even have the final say on the title

    It's not always such a bad thing if an editor wants to change a title. I know that some people find this highly intrusive, but I thought it was a really good thing that my editor suggested we change the title for my first novel -- much to his surprise. But "Straight to the Heart" wasn't all that good a title, after all. (I'm really, really bad at titles!)

    ~*~

    Have you noticed that there seem to be certain fashions in regard to how titles are formed? Among earlier Harlequin romances you find titles like "the honey is bitter", "high tide at midnight" (no capital letters!), or even just "Bellefleur", none of which is really descriptive. But you've already got titles like "no gentle persuasion" or "Hostile Engagement", too -- now, doesn't the latter sound downright modern to you? But it's a novel from 1979!

    It seems to me that the somewhat strange titles of Harlequin/M&B have almost become part of their brand by now.

    ReplyDelete
  5. if I had to come up with satirical names for romances, I couldn't do much better

    The Smart Bitches had a generator up on their site recently into which readers could enter appropriate (or inappropriate) words and generate a romance blurb and title. The results are not for the faint of heart or the easily offended by obscenity. The thing was, though, that there was something about the construction of the titles which made them instantly recognisable as 'romance' even though in many cases they were bizarre in the extreme.

    "The Mysterious Millionaire's Martyred Marxist Mistress" ("She found a capitalist pig to Socialize. He found a Revolution between her thighs...")

    Now that sounds interesting. There aren't many romances with socialists in them. The 'martyred' bit suggests this particular socialist might be in trouble, but it's a romance, so she's guaranteed a HEA.

    Wild and Wicked in Scotland"? It's full of Presbyterians. It should have been "Wild and Wicked in Wales."
    Not any more than Wales is full of Methodists/Nonconformists (if anyone's really interested in a quick intro to religious beliefs in Wales, there's one here at the BBC website).

    It seems to me that the somewhat strange titles of Harlequin/M&B have almost become part of their brand by now.

    I agree, Sandra. I think it is about branding, and sales. And it obviously works. Which, as you say, is a reason why 'It's not always such a bad thing if an editor wants to change a title'. It's not so good, though, if the author has strong views on the title and feels their artistic integrity is at risk, particularly if the original title tied in with important themes in the work. Can you imagine if Pride and Prejudice had been marketed as Sinful Passions - well, pride and prejudice are both sins, so you could argue that the second title's saying the same as the original, but it'd give you a very, very different set of expectations about the content.

    ReplyDelete
  6. j as in jennifer16 August, 2006 00:23

    "The Mysterious Millionaire's Martyred Marxist Mistress" ("She found a capitalist pig to Socialize. He found a Revolution between her thighs...")

    Now that sounds interesting. There aren't many romances with socialists in them. The 'martyred' bit suggests this particular socialist might be in trouble, but it's a romance, so she's guaranteed a HEA.


    Oh, these women are almost always martyred, having to marry a rich man against their wills. It's for convenience or it's blackmail -- social, economic or emotional blackmail... As "Blackmailed into Marriage" would imply.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Which, as you say, is a reason why 'It's not always such a bad thing if an editor wants to change a title'. It's not so good, though, if the author has strong views on the title and feels their artistic integrity is at risk, particularly if the original title tied in with important themes in the work.

    In this case, I'd go to both my editor and my agent and complain (which, for the reasons we've already discussed, probably doesn't work with category romance). And I'd show the the old and new title to a number of people to get their reactions. If everybody hates the new title, I'll sure let my editor know! I mean, normally, editors aren't unreasonable people and they don't make unreasonable demands (well, okay, according to the stories I've heard, some of them do, but really, I most certainly would not rewrite a synopsis five times for any editor!).

    Sometimes you come up with this great, wonderful idea -- but it simply doesn't work in this genre. Or carries negative connotations due to similarities to another title. E.g., I'm quite aware that the working title "Castle of Wolfenbach" for my current WIP will remain just that, a working title. It might be a nice reference to Eliza Parson's gothic novel "Castle of Wolfenbach" and the heroine might read that novel, yet it's just not a good title for a romance (and who would catch the reference straight away anyway?). Furthermore, it might evoke some unwanted associations with its similarily to the computer game "Castle of Wolfenstein".

    ReplyDelete
  8. These days, American category titles all seem to have the same rhythm and length, and they all seem to me to be both inane and dumbed down. I suppose the rhythm/length thing is part of the branding. And I've never felt like publishers really respect the readers, so inane/dumb is a longstanding frustration. But these titles are enough of a turn off that I don't pick a category up anymore, even though some of my favorite romances are categories.

    ReplyDelete