March 6, 2013

Authors vs. their own book subtitles


The hyperbolic book subtitle is a well worn publishing tactic, most prevalent in the sports memoir section. A quick Amazon perusal yields an overwhelming crescendo of emotion, from Lance Armstrong‘s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France  to A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played.  

There is a surfeit of “greatest” too, but perhaps the funnest and longest-ever subtitle is on Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won! A season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform — and Maybe the Best.

One cannot help but wonder how the writers themselves feel about this over-ripeness of superlative, and whether they agree that the team really was the “greatest”, the “best”, or just the damn winner of some sport once. Erik Wemple on his news media blog at the Washington Post writes that from time to time, authors repudiate their own over-excited subtitles in the book itself. In the foreword to Michael Lenehan’s Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team that Changed the Color of College Basketball, Lenehan himself writes,

“I don’t really believe that the Loyola Ramblers singlehandedly “changed the color of college basketball,” any more than I think the Texas Western-Kentucky game in 1966 “changed America forever” (Don Haskins, Glory Road), or that the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird championship of 1979 “transformed basketball” (Seth Davis, When March Went Mad).”

Wemple asked Adam Lucas, whose book The Best Game Ever Lenehan cites for similar crimes against over-statement, for comment, and he lays the blame squarely at the feet of his publishers.

“I didn’t like the title, but was outvoted by the publisher. I feel like making such a claim takes away from the discussion of the actual game and moves the discussion to exactly what we’re doing right now — trying to decide if it was actually “the best game ever”.”

I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of sports writing in general, although David Foster Wallace‘s great essay on tennis star Tracy Austin‘s ghost-written autobiography, Beyond Center Court: My Story, perfectly encapsulates the genre’s cover copy problem for me.

“[T]he publisher’s flap copy promises just this: “The inspirational story of Tracy Austin’s long struggle to find a life beyond championship tennis.” But the publisher’s flap copy lies, because it turns out that inspirational is being used on the book jacket only in its ad-cliché sense, one basically equivilant to heartwarming or feel-good or even (God forbid) triumphant. Like all good ad clichés, it manages to suggest everything and mean nothing.”

On that note, I’ll leave you with the profound alliteration of Gladiator: A True Story of ‘Roids, Rage and Redemption, but please know, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Andre the Giant: A Legendary Life. Andre was the greatest.



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.