Monday, July 13, 2009

The Wrong Title

As I write, I have always been fairly certain about the title of my novel in progress (though my forthcoming novel True Confections, had another title, and I will write about that soon). I am even pretty sure about the titles of some novels that lie far ahead of me in the years to come.

But I think I got it wrong with my third novel, The Little Women, which was published in 2003. It's a somewhat post-modern (not that I am sure I or anyone else really understands what is meant by that term) appropriation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I wanted to convey that, and given the nature of my novel, it seemed quite apt. I still think it was a good title, but I will always believe the title of this novel is one of the main reasons it has been least recognized and has probably sold the fewest copies among my novels, because it probably defined the book in a narrow and misleading way for too many readers. It probably suggested to certain readers that the book was going to appeal only to women. It probably suggested that the relationship to Louisa May Alcott was essential, when in fact, it was not, and my editor, John Glusman, had not even read the Alcott when he bought the novel.

About a year after publication, it occurred to me that I had missed the boat on the title. When Louisa May Alcott was writing Little Women (what is now Part I of the edition most familiar to readers over the generations), her working title was the ironic and perhaps even somewhat bitter The Pathetic Family. Her publisher balked at this, though of course she meant pathetic in the 19th century pathos sense, and he insisted that she come up with something far blander and sweeter.

Michael Cunningham made a brilliant choice to call his contemporary appropriation The Hours, which was Virginia Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway. I now wish I had called my third novel The Pathetic Family.


  1. Although you could have run the risk of getting the book mis-shelved in the pop psych section -- you know, The Spirited Child, The Passionate Marriage, The Pathetic Family. Then again, there are enough pathetic families out there that it might have boosted sales through the roof...

  2. I love the title, The Pathetic Family, because there is something shocking about it. We never dare call someone pathetic to his or her face! But I also liked the title The Little Women, too. The "the" made it unique.