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The Subtle (or not so subtle) Art of the Subtitle

Submitted by lizabernard on Sat, 10/19/2019 - 6:32am


Subtitles have gotten longer and perhaps more creative of late. Often they are used to expand on a title, as in “Last Letters” posted above. The title alone could be on a novel, but add “The Prison Correspondence between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45”  and we know precisely what the book is about. Or they clarify a catchy title such as the listings above for Farming While Black and Walking to Listen.

solitude & companyIn her June Washington Post article, Rachel Kramer Bussell notes several intriguing examples of this trend including Solitude & Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls by Silvana Paternostro.

If sometimes subtitles seem like a “key word” list so search engines will pick them up, Bussell had this confirmed by Todd Stocke at Sourcebooks. One of their new titles  Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between sports the subtitle The New and Necessary Conversations Today’s Teenagers Need to Have about Consent, Sexual Harassment, Healthy Relationships, Love, and More.

Lithub also ran a piece by Mary Laura Philpott about subtitles. She claims they are like a middle name - useful for identification but not always used. She reminds us that Eat, Pray, Love is subtitled One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia. And Mary Shelley’s masterpiece is actually Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, perhaps to offer a clue about the novel’s themes.

The function of giving a book a title and subtitle is to provide a handle by which readers can discover - and remember - the writing. Mostly I enjoy the descriptive phrases added on the book jacket to pique interest or add information but I fear the trend toward essay length subtitles does not give us readers much credit.

The opposite of too long a title is one that consists of a common word or phrase that too easily slips the mind and doesn’t really say anything about the content. But that musing is for another day… - Liza