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What probably started as a comment over a few beers and a running joke has become an organized thing. About a dozen years ago it was obvious to many that movie titles used a formula, the adjective noun. It’s developed into an online game which isn’t so bad, but seeing it coded into a formal game with points is a little disappointing. It’s probably how the original punks felt when they saw Boy open on the lower King’s Road and their basic idea was being taken from them; though not full blown Weltschmerz, it’s enough to make you go to the World’s End and order a snakebite.

Something similar crossed my mind last week as I completed American Pastoral, a fine work, though I would have some reservations in parts, there was a larger question as I finished it, and that is what is the aim of the title. A pastoral is a known form and this book barely fits within that style and never adheres to that genre.

The real emphasis, however, is on the adjective and that seems more puzzling than purposeful. Other people feel as I do about the proliferation of titles that add American as if it will render the work, either more specific to the situation of contemporary life and/or more portentous; which may make the book more appealing, although whether that is true is not certain as the idea is more speculative than founded on a tenuous fact.

The first thing is whether the writers choose this form: Adjective/criminal, action, thing, person, place, or if sales numbers prove that a title in this form is a real success outselling anything remotely and lamely titled, such as, for example, La Jolla Psycho or Detroit Beauty. These titles work as well to me, and I’m not saying that because I wrote them. They are ironic and moody, brooding even with a sense of disquiet and menace which may be attractive to a reader who believes they have seen everything.

Overcoming disinterest is the reason use of American. It is intentional, implying in the word a burden of conscience. Hence in American Pastoral it determines the schisms of the last forty-something years. In American Tabloid it retold the political ruptures of the 1960s. The title is almost slyly announcing that the work is not a novel, not a frivolous waste of time with invented things and events, but a review of reality, a depiction of history which will make sense of the events of the past to the reader. It may seem so on a first look. Psychos, gangsters and all the other phenomena of the society are magnified and made special, cast within the context of the society but there is no greater perception and no universal truth. The adjective does not quite achieve its aim; it is disingenuous because it is a marketing device and by default, pompous.

America is a large place, large for its citizens and for those us outside its borders, who share a sense of its bigness through music, movies, TV and literature. Being big can confer special qualities, somehow. All the same, it might be time to put the title aside.

Guy Cranswick
6th July 2014