Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can titles sometimes be TOO clever?

You know, not everyone is as quick witted as we dessicated PhDs. Shockingly, the reading public -- small in number as that community might be -- even contains literalists. B. B. sent me notice of this customer review at Amazon, posted by a purchaser of Karma Lochrie's Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy:
Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Warning - This book has nothing to do with covert operations, May 27, 2006
This book should be titled "Perversity, Gossip, and Women's Issues in the Late Medieval Period." It has nothing to do to with covert operations. Perhaps it is the only way the author could sell the book. Imagine spending $50 and expecting a serious discourse on medieval espionage, sabotage, spies, and assassins and receiving instead some feminist diatribe about gossip, sodomy, and other perversions. Unbelievable waste.

Alas, so far as I know the great tome on medieval Special Ops (with emphasis on spies and assassins) remains unwritten. In the meantime, Karma's feminist diatribe gets kudos from me: it's an excellent work.


Rachel Roberts said...

I would totally spend $50 on a feminist diatribe about gossip, sodomy, and other perversions. Sounds like a blast. In fact, ask me, Lochrie should have gone with Medieval Gossip, Sodomy and Other Perversions: A Feminist Diatribe as title.

I once published a book on Arthurian literature called Silk and Potatoes, though I'm pleased to report that it had both silk and potatoes in it. Though not potatoes wrapped in silk, or anything like that.

Anonymous said...

"Covert Operations" (the before-the-colon title bit, not the book per se) is not terribly clever. It sounds very graduate-student-seminar-paperish to me. It should have been nixed as an alternative on that score alone. Indeed, the colon gets many a thoughtful scholar in a pickle--there is an obligation to be clever on the left side and descriptive on the right. In my own work (say, the last four essays I've published), I've done away with the colon and hence the burden it used to place on me. If you must retain the colon, then something like the title adam roberts suggests is fair enough--it is descriptive on both sides. "Covert Operations" is metaphoric to the point of being basically non-descriptive. If I'm correct, aren't presses discouraging titles like those?

Karl Steel said...

Way back during my first year of college, I wrote a research paper on TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (my professor, to punish me for his pique, retaliated by giving me 4 credits, not in modern drama, not in modernist literature, but in 'Murder in the Cathedral.' Serious). I titled it Tedium to Te Deum. He wrote "Leave off the punning titles until you are so famous or insignificant that none one cares."

Earlier that year he tried to strangle me with a scarf when I made some irritating point about rhetoric vis-a-vis the Gorgias.

Thoughtful Scholar in a Pickle: Abelard and Twelfth-Century Ethics.

Thoughtful Scholar in a Pickle: Anselm and the Rational Proof of the Trinity'

Thoughtful Scholar in a Pickle: Gerson on Tyrannicide

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Congratulations, herr von ubel, on your colon purge. Sounds like it was cleansing.

My addiction to groaning puns like that one -- or smarter ones like Karma's -- really is the proof that I'm no good judge of what constitutes clever.

As to titles becoming plain and descriptive, blame capitalism. As an editor at Palgrave declares all the time, "Boring titles SELL." Clever ones -- or failed attempts at clever ones as the case may be -- seem to sell only to irate Amazon.com customers in search of super secret medieval spy notes.

Karl, I am SO using "Thoughtful Scholar in a Pickle" as the title of my next book. No colon thereafter, either.

Karl Steel said...

JJC: you might have to fight Uebel and me both to get to it first. Maybe we can do a collective 'Thoughtful Scholars, Each Bounded in His Own Pickle.'

I forgot to comment on this:

I once published a book on Arthurian literature called Silk and Potatoes, though I'm pleased to report that it had both silk and potatoes in it.

Wait. What?

Wait. What?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's a fight I will win. I am placing the book Thoughtful Scholar in a Pickle under contract even as we speak (New Middle Ages series at Palgrave). I'll type it out tonight, proof it tomorrow, and get it into production within the week. Look for it soon.

Liza Blake said...

shoot, I was planning to leave a comment similar to Adam Roberts's -- that review made me want to go out and pick it up immediately!

I guess I'll have to settle for a resounding huzzah in his general direction.

Liza Blake said...

P.S. On spies in the Renaissance see John M. Archer's Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance (Stanford, 1993). On assassins in the Renaissance see Martin Wiggins's Journeymen in Murder: The Assassin in English Renaissance Drama (Oxford, 1991). Medieval? Not my period (yet).

bwhawk said...

I'm ready to check out the Lochrie book just as the scathing review paints it.

Other than that, I keep wondering what a book on medieval espionage would include. Perhaps Snnorri Sturluson's double-agent identity would make it. I hope William of Baskerville would at least make it to the detective A-list.

Karl Steel said...

Okay, JJC: you win this round. That is, unless my press (U of Oslo-on-the-Hudson...or is that Muncie Bible College University Press [sic]?) beats you to it.

Other than that, I keep wondering what a book on medieval espionage would include.

Plenty. Codes, obviously. But you've started us on the right track with narrative. Hereward the Wake's another good one. Maybe Arcite in Theseus's court. The temptation to be resisted here, I think, would be a generalized history of disguise and deception.

If we wanted to look forward, maybe we'd write into the development of the legends of Hashshashin and the Thuggees. Even Ninjas.

Anonymous said...

I used to hate puns. During my PhD I tried to give papers the most boring descriptive titles I could, much to the disgust of seminar conveners who wanted to get people in. Now I'm going through a bad pun phase. Blogging has probably been a bad influence on me. I'm currently writing a paper about horses in the English Civil War that covers military logistics, property rights, authority, and the relationship the human and non-human. To the left of the colon is "The Great Supply Chain of Being".

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Geoffrey of Monmouth would also figure large in a discussion of medieval espionage: he ahs so many tales of racial passing, infiltration, and assassination.

Gavin, great story. I'd say no one puns like an academic, but there is a profession much better at it than we: journalists. If you can't pun, you can't write headlines. Pun or be punted!

Eileen Joy said...

The Amazon reader's review of Lochrie's book is crack-up funny. I, too, like herr von uebel, have been trying to avoid colonic titles, but alas, I find I slip into them all too easily. I wanted the title of our Palgrave book to be "Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History"--I think we all know what happened. The working title for my monograph possesses no colon but is practically inscrutable and opaque, nevertheless: "Beowulf in the Palm at the End of the Mind" [alternate title for grant application revoewers: "Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History"]. Oh well.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Inscrutable, Eileen? Not to someone who is a Wallace Stevens fan. The poem "Of mere being" (one of your Stevensian cites; there was also the reference in the title of the essay you gave to my collection) is the poem with exotic bird and stunning feathers; it was treasured by me as an undergrad onwards as everything modern(ist)poetry should be. And speaking of puns "mere being" as "simple being" but also "utter being" always seemed perfect to me.

Anonymous said...

As much as I'm a fan of Lochrie's book, I think the problem with her particular title is that you have to read the book in order to understand why it's so apt (at least, the term "femme coverte" didn't leap to mind for me when I heard the title). I have nothing against goofy puns, but a title can afford to be either clever or obscure, not both.

Anonymous said...

I think one of my points is that one does not have to be literal-minded to find punny titles to be formulaic and empty. The opposites of excessive metaphoric thinking include not literal-mindedness but clarity, common-sense, and communicability.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michael, the post was offered in good humor.

Anonymous said...

What post?

Karl Steel said...

Michele Uebelrix, but I trust you're not being doctrinaire (not that this is always a bad thing) in your opposition to punning titles.

(strikes me that the opposite of excessive metaphorical thinking is too little metaphorical thinking)

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what "too little metaphorical thinking" means. Is that like confronting reality, taking responsibility for what one does, writes & thinks, and distinguishing in real terms between right and wrong in a given moment, a given lived experience? If it is, I'm for it.

Even Reznor has gotten less metaphoric. "Head like a hole" or "I want to f*ck you like an animal" to "I got ma fist...I got survivalism." I think it has to do with becoming more politically and ethically engaged.

"Covert Operations" is an evasion of ethical responsibility. Small one, but there it is. It's like "spectral Indians." < Insert beating dead horse icon >

Anonymous said...

"like spectral Indians": hehehe. Mikhail make funny.

MKH said...

JJC and EJ: The poem "Of mere being" (one of your Stevensian cites; there was also the reference in the title of the essay you gave to my collection) is the poem with exotic bird and stunning feathers;

"the bird's fire fangled feathers dangle down"

Beautiful poem, I still remember my introduction to it (as well I should, it was only last fall!) -- listening to a master poet read it for a class I attended one session of. Stevens is something I wish I'd had more time to read and study. One of these days...

But yes -- more Wallace Stevens references in medieval studies are necessary, I think. Perhaps more modern and contemporary literary/poetic references in general, really.

Karl Steel said...

If it is, I'm for it.

Me too, I guess.

Perhaps I've stretching out this argument beyond where it should go, or just plain picking a fight, but isn't your "excessive" not so much modifying "metaphorical thinking" as it's expressing how you feel about "m.t."? Like, say, "I'm no fan of disgusting moldy peaches."

My hesitation, and this is, haha, boring (which card SZizak produces in the second graph of his response in Truth of Zizek: nice), is with the notion of some direct confrontation with 'reality.' Oh god that's boring, but you can see where I'm going with this. Don't you think that the problem with metaphors, and anti-metaphors both, tends to be arrogance (either of cleverness, or of being too real, man, to be clever)? And that's what I'd like to be against.

Anonymous said...

I see: for me, metaphorical thinking is excessive in that it's a luxury, a luxury in which "clever" PhD punsters indulge themselves at the expense of making a more (can I say) responsible and honest attempt to deal with the realities in front of them and in which they are immersed.

Metaphoric language troubles me when it appears to be an evasion.

You're right, though, to say there can be arrogance on both ends. But I do think arrogance about "being too real to be clever" is qualitatively different from arrogance about one's ability to exhibit cleverness in a book title.

The former can be strategically used for political and social ends, while the latter strikes me as mere show. I wouldn't buy a book like Lochrie's any more because if she can't be serious in her title, then I doubt (rightly or wrongly) her seriousness about her subject matter and her ethical orientation toward it. I know...I'm boring. But I still dig early NIN.

Karl Steel said...

Metaphoric language troubles me when it appears to be an evasion.

Agreed. Likewise with too much confidence of 'actually being in the shit' (unlike scholar X over there, who's way too mediated and clever for his.her.our own good).

How about high-fiving and calling it a day?

(if I have to choose music of that type, I suppose I'm more of a fan of Front242 or even MC900 Ft Jesus's 'UFO's are real')

Anonymous said...

When I departed a certain midwestern hellhole university with its Arts & Sciences run by a short shoeless schmuck, I left about 700 gigs of music on the A&S server, among which was a sizeable cache of Front 242, including every known remix of "Headhunter." For my money, the very best remix is Talla 2xlc's.

"Lock the target; bait the line."