What’s the deal with the trend of naming books? I am talking particularly about appending the subtitle: A Novel. This is often combined with using a single noun for the main title. Here are some examples: Stonehenge: A Novel, Raiders: A Novel, March: A Novel. I do not know anything about these three books. I have not read them. I do not want to say they are good or bad reads. I am simply focused on wondering what sort of purpose the subtitle serves. I already know it is a book. Shape alone is a dead giveaway there. I picked the book up in the fiction section; that tells me the kind of book. What possible purpose does the “a novel” subtitle serve? Now, if the title were Noun: A Kick in the Ass, I could see the need for some extra specification. Does conspicuously subtitling writing as “a novel” make some sort of cultural claim for the novel as a literary form? That is, does this overt subtitle substitute as a more refined expression of an otherwise vulgar boast: Noun: Not Shit?
This is not necessarily a rare trend. I took a bit of time doing various searches at online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, browsing the displays at local bookstore and chains and perusing the bestseller lists of newspapers. There are hundreds of books of various levels of popularity titled like this. As a simple anecdote, eight out of ten books on Amazon’s “Best of the Year in Fiction…So Far” list are subtitled “a novel.” (One is entirely without subtitle; the other is subtitled “stories.”) Have publishers decided that a title like Beautiful Lies, though perfectly insipid, is nevertheless not quite complete?
I understand the point of a subtitle for nonfiction work. A subtitle allows the publisher to snag a potential reader with both an eye-catching hook and an explanation of the content. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America achieves both goals. “A Novel” does neither. It does not particularly grab my eye—although the cynic may argue that my writing about this trend at all is proof to the contrary—and it does nothing by way of informing me of the book’s contents. The overwhelming majority of published works in fiction section of a bookstore are, in fact, novels. I do not need it. It does nothing.
Or does it?
Is it ironic? Knitting: A Novel as opposed to Knitting: A Scarf. Without diving overly deeply into the murky waters of the concept of irony, allow me to state what I mean by irony in this discussion. Irony is the literary technique of indicating an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated. Or as Troy Dyers answers in Reality Bites, “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” I realize I have just dispensed with the necessity of the subtitle “a novel” as empty and fundamentally meaningless in a literal sense. Yes, I know it is a novel; you do not need to keep reminding me of that fact. Is that then the irony? Is this a self-conscious reflection on irony itself as a literary device? Does that make it post-modern? Post-modern in the sense that a work of art is aware of itself as product. Douglas Coupland titled his most recent book JPod: A Novel. That may say something about the trend as an endorsement of irony in the sense of reflecting on it as a literary device—Coupland also included himself in the plot of the novel, a device I find similar to the titular one.
I trust you are hanging on this long in anticipation of reading my conclusion, so I will provide it like a good student of Ockham. Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. The subtitle is unnecessary. The trend is pretentious. Post-modernism should not have to work so hard to be relevant.