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Thursday, 27 October 2016

SUBTITLES FOR NOVELS or A Shift in the Style of Writing Across One Hundred and Fifty Years

Subtitles for novels have gone out of fashion, it seems. I can't recall a recent publication that's used one. And that's probably not such a bad thing. They seem to belong predominantly to that Victorian era where long, convoluted sentences were strung into long, convoluted paragraphs; each one intricately knotted together with so much punctuation that they somehow ended up resembling the crocheted sideboard runners and antimacassars of the day.

Elizabeth Gaskell's MARY BARTON (1848) is subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life, while Flaubert's MADAME BOVARY (1857) is subtitled A Story of Provincial Life.


Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843) ran under the full title:

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
In Prose
Being
A Ghost Story of Christmas

And HARD TIMES (1854) as HARD TIMES For These Times.

Thomas Hardy was no slouch when it came to a solid subtitle either, with:


UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE
or
THE MELLSTOCK QUIRE
A Rural Painting of the Dutch School (1872)


The Life and Death of the
MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE
A Story of a Man of Character (1886)


TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES
A Pure Woman
Faithfully Presented By
Thomas Hardy (1891)
 

While it's a maxim that didn't carry much weight in the nineteenth century, I suspect, authors today are urged to 'Show, don't tell,' and this may account not only for shorter, punchier sentences and less knotty punctuation - to say nothing of the shift in narrative voice - but also for the decline in subtitles. Of course, subtitles still occasionally surfaced during the twentieth century and Hermann Hesse wasn't averse to using them, most notably with:

THE GLASS BEAD GAME
A tentative sketch of the life of
Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht
together with
Knecht's posthumous writings
edited by
HERMANN HESSE (1943)

Although it could be argued that Hesse used this as an artistic device on this occasion in order to extend the fiction.

Which, no doubt, is what Kurt Vonnegut achieved in 1969, when he appeared to nail the subtitle once and for all.
 
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE
Or The Children's Crusade
 A Duty-dance with Death

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing
of Dresden, Germany,
'The Florence of the Elbe,'
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

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