As a companion to last week’s post on our all-time favorite titles, we thought it only natural to do a piece on the worst titles ever created. Of course, it’s easy enough to rummage through the wastebin of literary and (God knows) Web history to find a host of horribly misconceived titles by writers whose lack of taste and common sense carries over into their works. More difficult and interesting is finding examples of badly-titled famous works, or at least lesser-known bad titles by famous authors, since it’s that much harder for a work to succeed in spite of a bum handle—or for an author to succeed in spite of a tin ear for titling.
A brief glance at the list of plays by George Bernard Shaw (a likely first place to look) yields such timeless mellifluities as The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, Augustus Does His Bit, and The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet. But of course, Shaw could be kind of a simpleton himself, and these particular plays aren’t exactly well remembered. Neither are some of the minor poems of Wallace Stevens, a writer who, brilliant as he was, sometimes had a particular flair for the overwrought and off-puttingly modernist; his never-to-be-anthologized oddities include “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” “Lytton Strachey, Also, Enters Into Heaven,” and best of all, “Thinking of a Relation between the Images of Metaphors” (only the first two are supposed to be funny). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Keatsian ear for the language produced many elegant titles, but he almost sunk his best book by calling it “The High-Bouncing Lover” or “Trimalchio in West Egg” (two of the working titles for The Great Gatsby).
What about successful bad titles? Outmoded literary conventions caused pre-nineteenth-century titles to be notoriously long, full of classical references or dated-sounding names, and so on; thus works like The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters or Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” can be a whole lot better than they sound. But even in our postmodern era, works like Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia? have attained success in spite of titular ugliness. And so far we’ve restricted ourselves only to novels, poems, and plays; there must be plenty of famous-yet-terrible nonfiction titles, not to mention bad film titles and titles of artworks (most of the latter were purely descriptive until relatively recently, but modernism and post-modernism have certainly made up for lost time). What do our readers have to say? Leave your favorite awful titles—any era, medium, or genre is fair game—in the Comments section.