Quick: What do these books have in common?
The Sea Around Us. The American Way of Death. The Best and the Brightest. Dispatches. All Things Bright and Beautiful. Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
They are all bestsellers, and all, if not classics, at least milestones of popular culture from the 1950s to the 1980s. And they all lack something they certainly would have if they were published today: a subtitle.
As a publisher, there’s one moment I dread in the list-planning meetings where editors present their upcoming titles to colleagues. It’s when someone says, "We need to talk about the sub." Back in the 20th century, a subtitle might have told you the genre of a book (“A Memoir”) or supplied a setting (“Across the Pacific in a Raft.”) Today, as I'm hardly the first to observe, a subtitle often becomes an ungainly skein of phrases clattering along behind the title like tin cans on a newlyweds' limousine:
The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world
A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform--and Maybe the Best
How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West
How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want to Kill Talk Radio, the Self-Serving Congress, Companies That Help Iran, and Washington Lobbyists for Foreign Governments Are Scamming Us…And What To Do About It
The Amazing True Story of a Missing Military Puppy and the Desperate Mission to Bring Her Home
It's as if, instead of drawing a reader to a book with indirection and allusion, we feel the need to spell out the reasons to buy it. Twenty years ago, I remember a very smart colleague of mine telling an author, "You don't have to write 'Horse' under the picture." Today, perhaps, we do.
It’s tempting to see in this a dumbing-down trend in our culture. A less jaundiced view might be that subtitle-mania simply reflects the changing marketplace for nonfiction. In the days of The Sea Around Us or Dispatches, readers could find book reviews—with a few hundred words of description—in newspapers and magazines; they might even see authors talking about books on television. Today, printed book reviews have all but disappeared, and good luck finding a non-celebrity author on a talk show. Our best shot at communicating what a book is about might be throwing it all on the jacket so that a customer—browsing in a bookstore or online or, just as likely, Googling the '86 Mets or Fred Harvey—can't fail to see it.
One fact of publishing life has not changed, from the putative golden age to the brazen present. If you’re a celebrity, you can skip a “sub” altogether, no matter how terse or idiosyncratic your main title. From Laugh and Live by Douglas Fairbanks (1915) to Reminiscences (1964) by Douglas MacArthur, from Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin (1979) to See, I Told You So (1993) by Rush Limbaugh, the more famous you are, the fewer words you need on your jacket. The ne plus ultra in this direction was the 1992 work that combined a single-name author and a single-word title in one nuclear blast of notoriety. Perhaps that’s why titles and subtitles have been getting longer and longer. After MADONNA: SEX, what less can you say?
[Many thanks to Creative Nonfiction magazine, for whom I wrote this piece and who kindly permitted me to repost it here. It appears in CNF's current issue (number 39) along with many other meatier essays. You can find the table of contents and some sample articles here.]