Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Little Essays on the Rules (5) Tricksy Titles

                                              Philip Harvey

Reading The New Yorker on the tram this morning I came across an advertisement for the new Steve Martin book.  Martin, an American humourist and comic actor, has recognised that the tweet is an art form. Much of the Twitterverse is not sweet, let alone verse. It is a tiresome barrage of everyone’s opinions that, with time, becomes little more than a choral blur of undifferentiated shrillness. “I don’t like Julia Gillard” or “I don’t like Tony Abbott” makes not much difference after the twentieth time, unless the tweeter says something witty about red hair or cauliflower ears, whereupon their displeasure is plain. Witty or just twitty, witticism at the expense of these underwhelming leaders succeeds because it catches attention and is memorable. Steve Martin has grasped the essential fact about Twitter tweets: they are one-liners, his stock-in-trade. Using this simple observation, he has produced a book of his own one-liners which he subtitles ‘The Tweets of Steve Martin’.

This was not the thing that caught my attention on the tram, but the title itself. More particularly, I asked, how would you catalogue this book? The title is itself a joke about Twitter, tweeters forever changing their minds and trying to update their previous thought. The immediate joke is obvious, this author is not organised but plans to publish a book on being organised. (Organized, when you’re in New York.) It is also a send-up of those lengthy and overly friendly titles beloved of American publishers of business management and self-help books. We know the sort, where a subtitle can go on for so long it may as well be the First Chapter. But there are features of Steve Martin’s title that challenge our ideas about presentation in a bibliographical record.

The first is graphic. He has used a red pen to cross out, circle and underline words in the title. How do you put that in the description so it makes sense? The ten, make that nine, habits of very organized people. Make that ten is sufficient from the title page, but it fails to indicate the crossings-out and other markings that give the title its meaning. Are we expected to explain the joke in an extensive Notes field? The second challenge is that the title is two sentences. The Rules are not very good on two, three, four &c. sentence titles. Is Make that ten a subtitle? Of course not, but then is it a separate title? Is it the second half of the book, a different section? Maybe, maybe not. The run of words tells the reader that this is a piece of comic patter, Steve Martin talking to himself. A computer couldn’t guess. It has no choice, it reads the title as two sentences and so possibly two titles, two works in the one volume. The Rules sometimes expect the cataloguer to separate these sentences with dashes. Added titles can make them flow together, but don’t give the emphasis that is crucial to its meaning. Steve is making fun of Twitter grammar.

Quirky titles of this kind cross the desk from time to time. It can take a reasoned combination of time, sense, flexibility with the rules, and imaginative use of entry points to present something that is both meaningful and findable. One of my favourites of this sort is a, A Novel, by the New York (again) artist Andy Warhol. This one letter title uses the lower case form of the first letter of the alphabet. It is a curious consideration that a person who dropped the final letter of his surname Warhola would later publish a work in which that very letter re-appears as the name of the whole book. Was there something that Andy felt guilty about? Was there something missing in his life that he needed to rescue? Lowercase was all the rage in the late sixties, it was super cool to have a one letter book. His book is full of endless talk by his friends, a style Warhol took to excess. The last thing on his mind at the time was the havoc a would play with law abiding cataloguers. As cataloguers sometimes moan, why didn’t the author think about us when he decided on this?

All online records for this book present the title as a capital A. Whether this is because a is treated as the first letter of a sentence of which it is the only letter, and we capitalise the first letter of a sentence, is not explained. Whether the cataloguer has never been introduced to the world of e.e. cummings, in which virtually all words are lowercase, we will never know. A search using only ‘a’ would get thousands of hits on any catalogue, because it’s one of the two indefinite articles; though at least you might find Warhol’s book somewhere close to top of the title file, as it will have a zero filing indicator. Small-a was the intention of the author, as is made clear by the subtitle, A Novel, where both words are rather conspicuously capitalised.

No such luck for Andy when it comes to the Rules. Appendix 4 opens with the general rule: “Capitalize the first word of a title (title proper, alternative title, parallel title, quoted title, etc.)” Notice that this means we cannot even use a in an added title entry, nor present the full nameof the book.  a, A Novel, no; A, a novel, yes. This situation appeals to those who see life as cyclic. Rules say Capitalise. Artists find ways of subverting the dominant paradigm with lowercase titles. The Rules refuse to present the title as the artist intended. The easiest way of finding a by Andy Warhol is to search under author. 

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