Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shalom Auslander's new novel gets a title (at last)

Imagine: you've spent months -- years, maybe a decade! -- working on your novel. The blood, the sweat, the wasted ones-and-zeroes of computer space as you wrestle with abandoned approaches to plot, the intricacies of character, the midnight rewrites, all of it, mean nothing yet. The whole is not complete. Because now your publisher (assuming you are lucky enough to have a publisher and are not slaving away in the vague hopes of selling your prose in the dungeons of the internet -- a vast army of the downloaden, you might call it) wants that most elusive thing.

A salable title for your book.

Shalom Auslander contributes a witty piece in The Paris Review online about the struggle to arrive at a "bankable" title for his new novel. "As the time ticked by, the suggestions received more scrutiny and less consideration," he muses. One suggestion is "too George Saunders;" another (Sufferer's Delight) is too reminiscent of Sugarhill Gang. The publishers offer help:

The X is a bit of a trend now. The Informers, The Intuitionist, The Imperfectionists. Et cetera. There was some concern it would be seen as that. I had a difficult time believing that things had gotten so bad that the word “The” was a trend.

“Like the Bible?” I asked.

“Keep working,” I was told.

In each considered title, each sharp-edged rejection from his publisher at Riverhead Books cuts deeper: "My parents didn’t love me, so I have low self-esteem, and I agreed to keep working."

The good news is that Auslander and the folks at Riverhead have come to an agreement, the presses will roll, and another novel -- Auslander's first -- will be on the shelves in January. Here is a brief excerpt from the author's search for (if not necessarily meaning) at least a sale.

There’s an old Yiddish expression: the storm passes but the driftwood remains. It seemed appropriate, and it sounded like a “literary novel,” plus Yiddish is a dying language, so I’d get points for that.

“What’s the title?” people asked.

The Driftwood Remains,” I said.

“Oh,” they replied, nodding their heads as if to say, Yes — yes, that sounds like a book. My editor, showing it to people he knew, was getting the same unenthusiastic reception.

We kept looking. As the time ticked by, the suggestions received more scrutiny and less consideration. The Attic was my shrink’s recommendation. He pushed it pretty hard, too. “Because the attic is his superego, which he is trying to emerge from beneath.” That’s what’s called knowing too much about your character. Just analyze me, Doc, stay away from my characters. Laceration Nation — too George Saunders. Life’s a Gas — too Tadeusz Borowski. Sufferer’s Delight — too Sugarhill Gang.

The Excruciating Agony of Joy: Sounded to my wife a bit too much like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She was pushing for Hope: A Tragedy from the beginning, though, so maybe she was just bullshitting me.

At last, time ran out and the winter catalog had to ship, which is the way most literary decisions are finally made.

“How about,” the editor said to me, “Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel? But when the copy editor complains, I’m giving her your landline.”

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

Shalom Auslander is the author of the short story collection Beware of God and the memoir Foreskin’s Lament. His first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, will be published by Riverhead Books in January.

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