Pulitzer Bait

Los Angeles, CA | USA

Walk into any bookstore and the book titles aren’t just bad, they’re outrageously bad; and they’re not just outrageously bad, but outrageously bad in very much the same way.

We’re not alone in observing this. In 2022, the comedy writer Amelia Elizalde tweeted the following: “every book is called ‘the tiny things we know to be small’ or ‘the darkest wife.’”

And she’s not alone either. Try typing “every book now is called” into the Twitter search bar and see for yourself.

We set forth here a genealogy and an anatomy of this sort of twee, pseudo-profound, preening quality to be found in recent titles – mostly of novels, though occasionally nonfiction books and collections of poetry or short stories as well. We call it Pulitzer Bait.

The progenitor of all Pulitzer Bait titles is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Milan Kundera, it should be noted, was an accomplished existential novelist – but titles of the sort we call Bait try like the photocopy of a photocopy to echo the sense of profundity that the Unbearable Lightness might once have evoked, all while lacking precisely the virtues that make Kundera’s book so interesting. “The images of lightness that I seek,” Italo Calvino once said of Kundera’s novel, “should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.”

New York Review of Bait
Bestsellers List

The definitive hierarchy of bait sold in the United States,
sorted by word count.

18. A Field of Unrelenting Return by Ezra Bernstein
17. The Liturgy Was Our Jazz by Alexandra Saint-Georges
16. The Mystery of the Pistachio by Max Ornstein
15. The Fragility of the Poppies by Miroslav Popovic
14. What Lies the Mangroves Dispelled by Dakota Fernandez
13. People Called It a Tenderness by Paul Etienne
12. All the Boxes Left Unpacked by Travis James
11. Your Thighgap Took My Breath Away by Morgan Chen
10. Every Tree That Touches the Air by Sam Verney
9. The Wind Will Have Its Due by Dimitri Papadopoulos
8. We Do Not Fear the Caterpillar by Oscar Rivera
7. The Space That Holds Our Echoes by Emma Green
6. Before We Yelped in the Winter by Jack Domenico
5. A Beach Cannot Also Be a Heart by  Zoë Miller
4. In My Camry We Were a Microcosm by Nora Williams
3. And So We Drove On into the Sun by Katherine Frain
2. You Cannot Love Me While I Am Young by Clementine Fox
1. all the names of the things that were there (Poems)
by John Michael Colón

It’s important to make precise distinctions. All Pulitzer Bait is twee, but not all twee is Pulitzer Bait. And there have been trends in literary titles before, for better and for worse. On the finer side, many literary classics have kept it simple and made their titles the name of their main characters (Orlando, Mason & Dixon, Emma, Anna Karenina), though often this is abbreviated from a more verbose original form (it was once “the Ingenious Hidalgo” Don Quixote “of La Mancha”). Quotes from or allusions to Shakespeare (The Sound and the Fury, Infinite Jest, Pale Fire) and the Bible (The Violent Bear it Away, Song of Solomon, East of Eden) are also go-to favorites. Moving downwards in quality, one can observe that publishers – particularly those from the turn of our century – have tried to make various forms of fetch happen before quietly abandoning the effort. Thus we can see that after the success of a book like Franzen’s The Corrections, whose title is riffing on Gaddis’s The Recognitions, a dutiful succession of The Plurals briefly trooped across the literary stage (The Testaments, The Flamethrowers, etc). Similarly, a certain kind of hipster novel was fond of employing a full name that followed in the wake of a sustained burst of quirkiness (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland).

Pulitzer Bait, by contrast, is mostly a more recent phenomenon of the 2010s. (Though one suspects that it, too, is the result of publisher meddling – for some circumstantial evidence of which, read on). Its primary characteristic is its mawkish attempt to convey more depth and significance than is actually there. These titles tend to run long, are sometimes even complete sentences; they like to include plants, water, and stars while exploring themes of sex, sadness, and death. You’ve seen them on books populating the front desks of every indie bookstore in America. And when your eyes scan a shelf full of them, it’s as if every line of every bad slam poem you’ve ever heard were demanding its snaps all at once. The hope of the writer of a Pulitzer Bait title is that after the concatenation of place names and prepositions, of objects and organisms, of abstractions and sentimentalities, the reader will arrive at an endpoint that produces something roughly approximating an aesthetic experience. They might even work as phrases in the middle of the books themselves, embedded within a surrounding complex of images and ideas – but wrenched from their context, alone on the cover or spine of a book, they plead for your approval, yearning for a level of adulation that they have not yet earned.

We’ve taken the liberty of outlining a taxonomy of Pulitzer Bait in most of its common variations. A representative enough list, we think, though hardly exhaustive – our research programme is ongoing. Let’s begin:

I. The Truth Claims:
Titles that tell you how it is – maybe. Can take the form of definitions (“x is y”), negations (“x is not y”), categorical sentences (“all x are y,” “everything is x”), or other logical structures. And indeed they always make a Boolean claim whose value is either laughably false (in a way that suggests a half-baked metaphor) or trivially true.
See: The Trees Witness Everything, The Wind Is Not a River, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, A Girl Is a Body of Water, A Map Is Only One Story, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Everything Is Illuminated, Everything Is Flammable.

II. The Instructions:
Books that tell you what to do. Their commands should be obeyed only with caution. (Nota bene: James Baldwin gets away with titling one of his novels Go Tell It On the Mountain because it’s the name of a well-known church hymn. Like most great writers, Baldwin is also an irreproachable titler.)
See: Divide Me by Zero, You Exist Too Much, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, Meet Me in Atlantic City, You Shall Know Our Velocity!

III. The Collections:
These titles seem to suggest curiosity cabinets the authors have curated, with varying aspirations toward completeness, for your voyeuristic delectation. This cabinet was made only for you. We are now going to close it.
See: Things We Found When the Water Went Down, What We Fed to the Manticore, All the Light We Cannot See, All the Lovers in the Night.

IV. The Singularities:
While Collections encompass two spaces in Kant’s Categorical schema – All the things, or Some of the things – this next type of Bait completes the set by focusing our attention on just One thing. Always it’s a transcendental unity of sorts, some unique thing-in-itself which can only ever be glimpsed, if at all, via some preposterous prepositional relation.
See: A House Between Earth and the Moon, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Sound of Things Falling, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

V. The Mumblecore Characters:
These titles are written in an authorial voice that wants to convey that they’re sad – but like, they’re quirky about it.
See: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I Only Cry with Emoticons, I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki.

VI. The Desperate Lovers:
We approach the occult core of Pulitzer Bait. Breathless, running headlong past both cart and horse, these titles propose a redemptive power of love that encompasses even you, dear reader: downwardly mobile, fraying fuckup that you are. Maybe when you’re wandering the shelves on your lunch break you scoff at the image of heartbreak which these books might suggest. You’re a connoisseur of belles-lettres, such middle-school emotions cannot penetrate your carapace of sophistication, you’re better than all that – right..? But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself…
See: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty, We Do What We Do in the Dark, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness.

VII. The – What Are You Talking About?:
See: The Stars Are Not Yet Bells.

Titles this bad – which are more likely to inspire eyerolls than the intended awe in anybody but fully converted bookworld people – do a disservice to the authors. And all the moreso if they weren’t the writer’s idea at all, but the publisher’s. Our research has uncovered at least one highly promising clue that this could be the case for one of the above-listed examples of Bait: A Girl Is a Body of Water. Its author, the excellent Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013 for Kintu, a historical epic depicting the fall of the Kingdom of Buganda – and being a perceptive reader you will note that neither Kintu nor most of her other book and story titles (Manchester Happened, “Our Allies the Colonies,” “Malik’s Door,” etc.) are guilty of Pulitzer Bait. Upon even closer examination, it’s revealed that the UK edition of the Bait-titled novel was originally, and much more competently, called The First Woman. (A brisk study of the book led us to conclude that the author of A Girl is a Body of Water does not, in fact, seem to believe a girl is a body of water, but rather that the first woman emerged from one in a myth.) This would suggest to us that Tin House, Makumbi’s US publisher, engaged in the time-honored gringo-philistine tradition of “localizing” titles to “meet the needs” of “the US market” – whether for reasons admirable (trigger warning for those who Google the original title of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None), legalistic (copyright issues apparently required The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be marked up to The 7 ½ Deaths), or intellectual (Scholastic blanching at the possibility American tweens might confuse Snape for Spinoza when it replaced The Philosopher’s Stone with The Sorcerer’s). Perhaps Pulitzer Bait, when imposed upon its authors, is where aesthetic kitsch shades into an act of oppression.

The Pulitzer Prize

“Pulitzer Bait” is, alas, a bit of a misnomer. Among actual winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Pulitzer Bait titles comprise a small minority at best. By our reckoning, the only qualifying entries are (stretching a bit in some cases) The Edge of Sadness (1962), House Made of Dawn (1969), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990), A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993), and most recently (in a way the star of the whole show, possibly a key inspiration for all subsequent bait), All the Light We Cannot See (2015). Not to say that all other Pulitzer-winning titles are better, either; some are just bad in other ways that fall outside the scope of this paper. And besides, a gag recalling Oscar Bait was too good to pass up on. Still, funny as it is to compare last season’s tastefully diverse autofiction to a middling art film courting the Academy Awards, the accolades these books are vying for seem to have more to do with BookTok and Goodreads virality than any particular prize.

If there is a genuine connection between these recent terrible titles and the Pulitzer itself, it has less to do with the labels on past winners than with a shared spirit of artistic hopelessness. We hold with William Gass that – with the exception of the rare competent selection like The Age of Innocence, Beloved, and, nearly (though the advisory board rescinded the prize after the jury had made its decision), Gravity’s Rainbow – “the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill–not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley.” Gass concludes, “Because we have a large, affluent, mildly educated middle class that has fundamentally the same tastes as the popular culture it grew up with, yet with pretensions to something more, something higher, something better suited to its half-opened eyes and spongy mind, there is a large industry of artists, academics, critics, and publicists eager to serve it – lean cuisine, if that’s the thing – and the Pulitzer is ready with its rewards.”

So what makes a good title? We’ve already talked about some tried and true quality formulas: names, Shakespeare, Bible quotes. But here’s one more. The greatest novel in the English language also possesses a title of classical perfection: The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. It’s a strong title because it finds new resonances as the novel goes on. There is the concrete image of the ocean, which recurs throughout the book. But this motif reappears at different phases of the characters’ lives, which we follow in a dreamlike way from beginning to end. And this ocean, in a way, is time itself, which carries us along on its waves; and the network of characters, their interlocked consciousnesses, is also related to this sea; because it turns out, by the end of the novel, they all half-realize they’re not really individuals at all, that no one is; we’re all, each of us, a temporary perturbation on the surface of that water which composes us all. ~ 

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