If I had a euro for every time a student has handed in an essay with no title, I’d be… in less fear of the current crisis. Not rich but possibly in possession of, say, a much better handbag. Actually, if I think about it, there are two variations to this problem: essays with no title at all, or essays that simply use the title of the text analysed. Yes, “Wuthering Heights” is a title that exists though it should not.

The resistance to using titles is hard to explain in view that nobody would read a newspaper article, or a piece of Literature, without one. Imagine going to the cinema and having to point to the ticket seller what you want to see because the film has no title (or do people ask anyway for ‘the new Leonardo Di Caprio?’). So, there’s not really an explanation for the absence of the title in many (most?) students’ essays, unless it is a bad habit caught from exams of the traditional kind in which, if I remember correctly, I was never asked to supply a title (apparently my examiners assumed that the question was title enough).

Any literary writer will tell you that choosing titles is very important and that a bad title can kill a good novel (a good title can, of course, make a bad novel an instant success –anybody will want to read something called The Da Vinci Code). Kazuo Ishiguro defines the process as “a bit like naming a child” as “a lot of debate goes on.” Sometimes, strange accidents happen and so he explains that the intriguing title for his masterpiece The Remains of the Day comes from “a semi-serious game of trying to find a title for my soon-to-be-completed novel” (Michael Ondatjee suggested Sirloin: A Juicy Tale…). Judith Hertzberg, a Dutch writer, mistranslated Freud’s phrase ‘tagesreste’ as ‘remains of the day’ (apparently it’s ‘debris of the day’) and Ishiguro borrowed it, as this “seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere.” Voilà. (This comes, by the way from the, um, juicy Paris Review interview with Ishiguro, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5829/the-art-of-fiction-no-196-kazuo-ishiguro).

Argumentative essays, which is what should concern students and academics, are very demanding in terms of finding a title as this title should reflect the thesis of the essay and still be attractive (not a long explanatory sentence, as some offer). Apparently, finding a title is so hard that I have already come across a couple of automatic essay title generators on the net –they produce hilarious results… also scary, as we teachers seem to be asking for very predictable essay topics.

As a general rule, an academic essay should have a title and a subtitle, which are open to different possibilities. Basically, though, the title should advance the thesis and the subtitle refer to the text/author analysed or add an explanation to the title. Producing witty titles is only possibly for very advanced students and for a handful of teachers. Aspiring to writing ‘clever’ titles is often a mistake, as this usually only results in embarrassing, silly titles. It’s hard to give advice beyond a) titles should be concise but also sufficiently informative of the contents, b) they should be attractive and invite the reader to read on and c) wait until you have completed your essay to find a suitable title (it may be one of your own sentences).

Since I expect the reader will be waiting for some example, I have checked the MLA for titles of published academic work on the novel I’m currently teaching – yes, The Remains of the Day. Here are five that seem to me if not perfect (what is perfection, after all?) certainly up to the task of transmitting a clear idea of the thesis and contents, and of sending an invitation to the (possible) reader:

“Escape from Responsibility: Ideology and Storytelling in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
“The End of (Anthony) Eden: Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Midcentury Anglo-American Tensions”
“Serving a New World Order: Postcolonial Politics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
“The Butler in (the) Passage: The Liminal Narrative of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
“Being an Other to Oneself: First Person Narration in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

To check whether they’re really good, you should now read the corresponding essay and see if the title truly fulfils its function… I’ll leave that to each reader.

And I truly hope that one day I will no longer think of buying an expensive handbag every time I mark an essay with no title or with an unsuitable one…

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  1. I really agree with what you are saying. Besides, when looking at those titles I just think of how simple it is to do your essay’s title, just making and advance of your thesis and the content and then a subtitle to link it with the author and the novel, and I had not thought of it but as you said, it could be even one of my own sentences!
    I think that we students make it much more difficult that it actually is, and I include myself in that, so well, I am going to practice to try and do my best in the Kazu Ishiguro’s The remains of te Day exam!
    pd: Great post

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