Sunday, April 29, 2007

Elevating the Pun to an Art Form

According to Samuel Johnson, the pun is "the lowest form of humour". I've always been inclined to agree.

To me, the pun has always seemed like a character type.

A Lyle Lovett lyric goes like this:

You are a lonely, weak, pathetic man.*

My favorite lyric from any Smiths song goes like this:

So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry and you want to die.**

If puns were people, these are the kind of passages that would seem entirely appropriate for describing them.

I have no real pity for the pun, no matter how much disrespect is thrown at it. The pun seems desperate, but not especially pitiable. I'm not saying that there aren't clever puns out there. Surely, there must be. But on the whole, as a class, puns are insipid. Is there a better word to describe them? I doubt it.

However, there is one area of human endeavor where I truly believe the pun has been raised to an art form: The mystery novel title.

There seems to be an entire subgenre of mystery novel that has sprung up around the punny title. Consider the following:

Diane Mott Davidson
  • Sticks & Scones
  • The Cereal Murders
  • Chopping Spree
  • The Main Corpse

Nancy Fairbanks
  • Crime Brulee
  • Truffled Feathers
  • Chocolate Quake

Laura Durham
  • Better Off Wed
  • For Better or Hearse
  • Bride and Doom
  • Acts of Violets

Charlaine Harris
  • Grave Sight
  • Dead Over Heels
  • Club Dead
  • Last Scene Alive

Maddy Hunter
  • Norway to Hide
  • Top O' the Mournin'
  • Alpine for You
  • Pasta Imperfect

Gillian Roberts
  • A Hole in Juan
  • Till the End of Tom
  • Adam and Evil
  • Claire and Present Danger
  • Helen Hath No Fury

...and the queen of the subgenre (in my opinion), Mary Daheim
  • Saks and Violins
  • Dead Man Docking
  • Fowl Prey
  • September Mourn
  • A Streetcar Named Expire
  • Legs Benedict
  • Dune to Death
  • Wed and Buried
  • Suture Self
  • Creeps Suzette
  • Silver Scream
  • Murder, My Suite

It's not that the puns in these titles are especially rich. (Mostly they aren't.) Rather, it's just the hokiness of the whole thing. A punny book title like these is almost guaranteed to belong to a mystery novel. Seeing all of these titles makes me seriously wonder what's going on.

  • Which comes first? The title or the book idea?
  • Do the authors maintain title lists for years, just waiting for the opportunity to cross the items off their lists?
  • Are the titles really tied to the stories? (I'm almost tempted to grab a few of these books and read them just to check on this one.)
  • Do publishers or agents provide the titles as writing prompts?
  • Do publishers salivate at the prospect of a new punny-title mystery series? Or do they all groan at the idea of yet another punny-title mystery series?
  • Are there punny titles that are rejected?

* Her First Mistake
** How Soon is Now

1 comment:

  1. Having read my share of books with corny punny titles, I feel that I can safely answer at least one of those questions with some certainty, without having actually read any of them: yes, the titles almost undoubtedly DO tie into the subject matter, one way or another.

    SPEAKING OF PUNS...Last week, quite by accident, I thought of a line I thought would make a good ending to the bellringer joke - nothing nearly as awful as the two you & Beth were able to unearth last year - and Mom agreed that it was good. Unfortunately, neither of us can remember (tonight) what it was, but when one of us recalls it, I will share it with you as soon as possible.

    -Your loving sister ;D