The Age of Cutesy Titles


This week the cover spot in The New York Times Book Review went to a collection of stories with a title that’s nine words long and forms a complete sentence.

          Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

          Maile Meloy

In October a book is coming out with a similarly long title (although it’s not quite a complete sentence).

          What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

          Laura van den Berg

At Muumuu house, the kids have been releasing books of poetry with long, complete-sentence titles.

          During My Nervous Breakdown I Want to Have a Biographer Present

          Brandon Scott Gorrell

          Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs

          Ellen Kennedy

Other examples are certainly out there.

Are we looking at a trend?

Most of these titles combine the indie virtue of confessional sincerity with a somewhat Chris Anderson insistence that text is abundant and free, and therefore we don’t need to condense our thoughts into pithy, economical titles like our parents did.

Most of these titles also try to retain an air of mystery in their phrasing; even with a complete sentence and sometimes striking imagery, you don’t quite understand what they’re referring to.

If this is really a trend, we might hypothesize that it began with the McSweeney’s web site. As early as 1999, they were giving their wacky, pseudo-literary adventures titles like these.

          “Once Their Tools Were Stolen, Other Things Happened”

          “I Can Get My Pants Off Quickly Because They Are Loose-Fitting and I Am Not Wearing Shoes”

          “There Is No Average Day When You Live in a Port-A-Potty”

To this day, it’s almost a requirement that a story on the McSweeney’s web site use a detailed description of the “gag” as its title.

          “The Confirmation Hearing of Sonia Sotomayor, If the Hearing Were Held In Front of the 1977 Kansas City Royals Instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee”

          “I Am Poseidon! God of the Sea! I Also Teach Water Aerobics On Saturdays”

          “I Feel Like You Should Have a New Opinion of Me”

Our arch-enemy, who contributes to McSweeney’s, chose a fairly long, striking-but-not-terribly-revealing, complete-sentence title for his book.

          A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both

          Ben Greenman

And we probably have to credit the McSweeney’s meister himself for launching the trend of faux naive, hyper-self-aware titles that we’re seeing now.

          A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

          Dave Eggers

Are we entering an age of sincere, verbose, cutesy titles?

Is that a good thing?

Has McSweeney’s ruined everything you once held dear?

Why is literature always the last art form to steal fads from popular culture (in this case, stealing the indie virtue of confessional sincerity)?

Can you think of other titles like these?



  1. He looks like something. “indie virtue of confessional sincerity” is probably a good term for it. It’s just the mainstreaming of that tendency, seeing books on the front page of the NYT Book Review with cutesy titles. There will be a backlash to this, won’t there? Just live through it.

  2. Whew… “Arkansas” actually takes place in Arkansas. Remember “Prague” by Arthur Phillips, which takes place in Budapest?

  3. I think every blogger needs an arch-enemy.

    That’s not John Madden?

    What if we just take classic titles and McSweeney-ize them?


    “War is a Bloody Pain in the Ass But Peace Is No Picnic Either”
    “Les Miserables Sont Seulement Miserables Jusqu’à Eux Meurent”
    “Emma Thinks Boys Are Dumb”
    “The Earth Isn’t Really That Good, and Living in China Kind of Sucks”
    “I’ll Wuther Your Heights”

  4. I thought they were mocking academia, a world containing titles such as “Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England” and “A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in American,” and of course who can forget the classic work by Christine Leigh Heyrman, “Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750.”

  5. Thanks to Ashley for mentioning two other full-sentence titles of newly released fiction: “This Is Where I Leave You,” by Jonathan Tropper, and “It Feels So Good When I Stop,” by Joe Pernice.

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