Anatomy of a Subtitle

BY TOM CARDAMONE

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Naming a book is quickly comparable to naming a baby: yes this paper creature will have a life of its own, and only after you nurture it properly, but really the thinking process around titling a book is best considered writing poetry with a razor: it has to be concise, sharp, and, like anything that can cut remotely deep, memorable.

Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe is my seventh published book, so I’m in a comfortable position to look back and review my personal “naming” process. Some titles gestated for a long time, and when I invoke them in conversation or at reading, they still slice as freshly then as when first conjured. One, my novella Pacific Rimming, came to me in the back of a cab and was launched with a drunken guffaw. I edited a collection, The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, wherein writers essayed about a favorite gay text that was out-of-print, and had had some back and forth with one of the contributors over the original title, Dust Jackets, as being a bit, well, musty, and not really connoting the contents. So I turned it over to the writers and oddly, the one who suggested what’s now the title also missed some deadlines, went silent, and never turned in their essay (and the writerly life being so damned weird, I’m now friends on facebook with the author whose book Mr. Silent had intended to review. To double down on said weirdness, that writer and I got along so well that I invited him to contribute to another anthology I later edited. He missed some deadlines, went silent, and never turned in his piece –I wonder if they are together right now at that old gay dive, Julius, in the West Village, offering to buy one another the next drink but never actually ponying up the cash?).

Night SweatsThe title proper for my new book and second collection of short stories, Night Sweats, is defined by absence.

Thirteen stories? Check.

Some nasty surprises? Check.

Some previously published work? Check.

New stories? Check.

Some seriously hot scenes? Double check.

Satan masturbating on a train? Of course.

These stories have gay folk spread across millennia, countries and cultures. What the book doesn’t possess is a single mention of AIDS. Yet night sweats are a symptom of HIV and AIDS. One of my best friends and I once commented to each other how different it is for a gay guy to get the flu. The shuffle to the pharmacy includes a mental check list of recent sexual encounters, a raw tally of what, if anything, went wrong. The cough and fever is an emotional earthquake, none too high on the Richter scale if you’d been safe, but at still it cracks the confidence, emits doubts -summons that permanent fear.

A fear that will never go away.

So that’s where the title comes from: even when we’re not talking or thinking about AIDS, it’s there. Its permanent scars on the landscape of queer culture are so deep that they’ve formed the canals from which our current civil rights victories have flowed. Some might disagree, but the eventual recognition, the struggle to organize, netted us something more than survival. We learned to fight for a better future. But the reverberation of that horror, that holocaust, remains. And when I’m writing a story filled with dread, I draw from this emotional reality. The subtitling of Night Sweats, Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe, was, for me, an exercise. How to extend the meaning of the title but not repeat the theme? I thought of the novel Frankenstein. Really, what book has a more impressive subtitle: or, The Modern Prometheus –I mean, damn. Powerful stuff, right? I made a list of words and fragments and played with them until I felt like I had formed the right key for the reader to better unlock the work. I hope it works for them. I hope it works for you. I hope I keep getting better as a writer. I hope my boyfriend comes home with a bottle of red wine. I hope that Madonna reissues Erotica with a ton of remixes and previously unreleased demos. I hope Night Sweats sells really, really well. I hope whoever likes it sends me an email telling me so on whatever day of the week happens to be the shittiest. I hope PrEP is the crucial step necessary to rid us of AIDS once and for all. I hope that wonder edges out woe in the world. I hope our collective pens play a part in redrawing that demarcation line. Oh how I hope.

3 Responses to “Anatomy of a Subtitle”


  1. 1 S.A. March 3, 2016 at 10:31 PM

    Thank you for sharing your process for titling this new collection. I confess that AIDS was not the first thing I thought about when I first read the title – as a lesbian, rather than a gay man, my awareness of the illness is clearly less refined. Given your explanation here, I’m glad you’re taking the expression and “extending the meaning” – going beyond what may have been expected and giving your readers something else entirely. Congrats on the new book!

    Like

  2. 2 Devlyn March 4, 2016 at 6:05 AM

    After reading the reasons in your blog, I think your title is rather apt. I am with SA on this one and HIV and AIDES did not come to mind when I first saw your title. I can see why a gay man who has the flu symptoms would be concerned and I’m so glad I don’t have to worry like that as it must really suck. I guess I never really thought about it before so thanks for educating me. Congratulations on your newest book.

    Like

  3. 3 The Pencil Hoarder March 5, 2016 at 10:04 AM

    Interesting back story on the title. For some reason this makes me more eager to finally get my hands on a copy of Night Sweats.

    Like


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