I don’t think I’ve ever read a literary journal from cover to cover, in the exact order in which the stories, poems, and essays are presented by the editors. And I know I’m not alone in this regard. I suspect that most readers share my habit of jumping from story to poem to essay in a haphazard manner that is determined sometimes by recognizing the names of certain authors and sometimes by opening to pages at random. Most often, though, the order in which I read the works in a journal is determined by the relative strengths of the titles of the works themselves. In fact, my favorite thing to do when I get a new issue of a journal is to open to the table of contents, scan the titles, and allow one to grab my attention, to tell me that this is the story/poem/essay (okay, usually story) where I should begin my reading.
Since I had a hand in putting together the latest issue of IR and already know what’s in there (spoiler alert: it’s all awesome), I can’t title surf the table of contents the way I do with most journals. If, however, I came across our table of contents as a reader unaffiliated with IR, I’m fairly certain that I would immediately jump to page three of the journal, so I could begin my reading with the story whose title is so wonderfully quirky and specific that it could almost be a story unto itself: James Brubaker’s “Flavor Flav Travels Through Time and Reads About Himself on Wikipedia.” That’s the kind of title that simply can’t be ignored by a reader…or an editor.
Although I’ll admit to having a soft spot for zany and preposterously long titles (one of my all-time favorites is Donald Barthelme’s “Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft Between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916”), a story’s title doesn’t necessarily need to be zany and/or long to get my attention when I’m wading through the slush pile. Take, for instance, the recent winner of our fiction prize: CB Anderson’s “Mavak Tov.” While the title of Anderson’s story is certainly far simpler than Brubaker’s or Barthelme’s, it’s no less intriguing, I think. It’s the kind of title that inspires either a) a quick trip to Wikipedia, or b) a burning desire to read the story and find out what Mavak Tov is. (Spoiler alert: Wikipedia won’t help you out here, so you’ll just have to read the story in IR 35.1 this spring.)
While a story will never make it very far in the selection process based solely on the strength of its title, I can’t deny that a story with an intriguing/zany/entertaining title is likely to evoke a more generous reading from me of its first page or two than stories with comparatively vague or unremarkable titles like “Sunflowers” or “Confrontation” or “July.” IR has, of course, published many wonderful stories with fairly forgettable titles, and I’m sure we’ll publish many more in the future, including several during my tenure as fiction editor. However, for those writers wondering how to make your work stand out amongst the crowd of thousands of stories in the slush pile, giving some serious (or zany) thought to the strength of your title wouldn’t be a bad place to start. The title is, after all, where the reader starts, and you want to be sure it’s not also where the reader stops.