Yesterday’s post discussed a bet between two poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Horace Smith, about who could write the better sonnet about the Egyptian pharaoh, Rameses II. (Amazing that Judd Apatow hasn’t written a raunchy buddy comedy about this, huh?)
Shelley entitled his poem “Ozymandias” (another name for Rameses), while Smith called his “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley, needless to say, won the bet.
Regarding the fundamental difference between Percy and Horace, writer Guy Davenport had this to say, in a 1978 New York Times editorial: “Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem.” We’d like to apply that same quotation, with some slight modifications, to some other titles:
“Genius is knowing when to listen to your editor”… F. Scott Fitzgerald, apparently, never liked the title The Great Gatsby. Instead, Fitzgerald entertained the following stinkers : Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; The High-Bouncing Lover; and, worst of all, Trimalchio (which is the name of a lascivious character in a rather obscure 1st-century Roman satire). Luckily, his editor Maxwell Perkins talked some sense into him.
“Genius is also knowing when to tell your editor to go pound sand”… Apparently, Charles Schulz never liked the name Peanuts. He originally called is strip Li’l Folks, but another strip called Little Folks beat him to it. So the folks about Schulz went with Peanuts, as a nod to the peanut gallery in Howdy Doody. Years later, Schulz called Peanuts a “totally ridiculous” name that “has no dignity”… and he’s kind of right. (Then again, how much dignity does the name Li’l Folks have?)
“Then again, genius maybe IS listening to your editor”… Can you imagine telling someone, “Well, I’m in quite a Catch-18 right now.” Well, that’s what you’d be saying if Joseph Heller was able to go with his original title. However, another book (by Leon Uris) was coming out at the same time named Mila 18, so Heller’s editor suggested Catch-22. Heller fought it at first—he offered Catch-14 as a second choice—but he finally reneged.
“Genius is coming up with a title that people can actually understand”… I remember, several years ago now, I was at the movies watching a preview for an upcoming James Bond movie. And after two minutes chock-filled with explosions and car-wrecks and shaken martinis, the title of the movie filled the screen: Quantum of Solace. And people started laughing. Out loud. (Now, I never saw the movie, so I can’t say whether or not the title actually fits. But to me, it seems pretentiously stupid.)
“Genius is listening to your wife”… When Steve Austin entered the (then) World Wrestling Federation in 1996, he was saddled with the ineffective name “Ringmaster.” Austin thought he could do better. Inspired by a HBO documentary about a serial killer nicknamed the “Ice-Man,” Austin decided to play an unfeeling, cold-hearted character and went to the creative folks saying he wanted an appropriate name. According to legend, they went a little overboard with the “cold” imagery, coming up with names such as Chilly McFreeze and Ice Dagger. Later, a discouraged Austin sitting with his then-wife, a British woman named Jeannie Clark, who advised him to drink his tea before it came “stone-cold.” And Stone Cold Steve Austin, the name that launched a million T-shirts, was born. (Who knew pro-wrestling could teach us so much about marital cooperation?)
“Genius is opting not to go with the title of the source material if that title is lame and/or confusing”… Don’t get me wrong: The Steven Spielberg/ Tom Cruise film Minority Report is a fantastic, complex, criminally under-rated film. But the title stinks. Just stinks to high heaven. Yeah, I know that the Philip K. Dick short story upon which the film is loosely based is also called “Minority Report.” So what? Did this story have so many legions of fans that they couldn’t possibly tinker with the title? They changed the characters and the plot… why not the title?
“Genius is making sure a word in your title doesn’t mean something inappropriate in Korean”… According to urban myth, the short-lived sit-com Joanie Loves Chachi (a spin-off of Happy Days) had huge ratings in Korea because the word “chichi” is Korean for… a certain part of the male anatomy. That story, of course, is completely untrue: “chachi,” it turns out, is not a Korean word for anything. Still, you may want to check on that beforehand… you don’t want to take that chance!
Any other rotten, non-genius titles out there? Let us know!