Two months ago I ran into Bob Lawrence, a local pathologist and erudite socialite. He was dining at Wine Wizard’s with his elegant wife Eleanor. Bob loved my book Dogmeat and penned a positive review for it on Amazon.com. I told them that my new short story book was ready for publication. When they asked me what the title would be I said Appassionata, and told them what the flagship story entailed. They surprised me with a firm response that they would not buy a book with that title, nor would others. This touched off a rare crisis of confidence for me, and a lengthy period of title searching.
I did not have any title problems with my first book. I settled on Dogmeat less than half-way through, as I was writing my first draft. It was abrupt, catchy and awkward enough to arouse curiosity. It was also unique. My early decision enabled me to work the word into the fabric of the narrative as a refrain and metaphor. When published it indeed provoked widespread curiosity.
With the new project however, a collection of seventeen diverse short stories, it was impossible to choose a title while writing them. It would boil down to a title within the collection that would emerge as a flagship. When I finished Testicle Talk I thought that would be the title. But Mim, my editor, hated it. Too vulgar, may place my book in the smutty side of the internet. My wife agreed.
“Now Testicle Talk!” said Bob Lawrence. “That’s a great title. I’d buy that book in a second.” His wife nodded in agreement. Mim would have a stroke, I thought. I didn’t say anything.
The problem with Appassionata was that it was foreign and haughty, according to Bob. “How many of your readers do you think have heard Beethoven’s Piano Sonata?”
He was right. When I later checked with my wife and my son Richie they affirmed Bob’s opinion. But when I conveyed all this to Mim she was indignant. Worse yet, I told her how much Bob liked Testicle Talk. Mim threatened to resign from the project.
It was thus that we plunged into a period of uncertainty, trying out alternative titles. We eventually settled on some variation of another story, The Pinch. For weeks we debated In A Pinch, Pinched, With A Pinch, and so on. In the meanwhile I began personally polling others in my world with Pinch versus Appassionata. My main O.R. crew at St. Joseph’s, a second family, came uniformly on the side of the Pinch.
In the end I came back to Appassionata, for several reasons. To begin with, it is the most elaborate, skillful story in the set, whereas The Pinch, while cute and O’Henry-like, is a minor story. Second, I had already written an introduction that began with an invocation of Beethoven, referring to Appassionata, and I liked a lot. How was I to revise it for Pinch, and who was I to invoke?
The final straw was a Hispanic scrub tech I regularly work with at San Joaquin General Hospital. When I polled the O.R. crew there and told them that so far Pinch was winning two-to-one, Maria sounded surprised. “Do they know what Appassionata means?” she asked.
She did, and she loved it. And she became the deciding factor.
The experience taught me that putting out aspects of a creative work for popular vote at best creates confusion, at worst, a paralyzing crisis of confidence. You can’t please everyone. Hollywood studios try to do that, modifying their films with audience reactions, and often end up with jumbled, inferior results. The creative process is all about expressing what’s within, regardless of how it will be received. Those who do best are the ones who stay true to themselves.
Mim was ecstatic. She congratulated me on my final choice and we moved on to a search for a subtitle, a process even more painful to recount. I’ll spare you the details.