Shogunesque titles

One word says it all, and sells best, too

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times, 25 March 1987, page 12

The shorter its title, the more likely a novel will sell. One-word titles deliver straight punches. Their single nouns catch the eye and invite perusal, even without spicy covers and lurid blurbs.

An unprecedented 6 novels on 1964's best-ten list had one-word titles: Candy, Herzog, Armageddon, The Man, The Martyred, and Convention. But 4 of 1895's top ten novels bore remarkably modern one-word titles: Tribly, The Manxman, The Master, and Regeneration.

The seven decades from 1985 to 1965 (minus the odd middle year 1935) produced respectively 15, 29, 18, 18, 22, 20, and 28 novels with one-word titles out of each decade's top 100 best sellers (based on 10 annual lists of the top 10 best sellers).

So, 150 of the 700 best sellers, or an average of 21.4 (number and percent) of the most popular novels per decade, had one-word titles.

While these figures indicate a slight trend toward one-word titles, they also show that such titles are nothing new. And they suggest that such titles have waves of popularity.

Something else can be observed from the lists of books found in Alice Payne Hackett's 70 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1965 (New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1967).

The shorter its title, the more likely a novel will sell. Of the 426 novels which sold one-million or more hardcover and paperback copies from 1895 to 1965, more shorter titles are found among the first 100 novels on the list than among the last 100.

One-word haiku

One-word titles deliver straight, lean if not clean punches. Their single nouns would catch the eye and invite perusal even without the spicy covers and lurid blurbs.

In this sense they are haiku-ish vignettes.

They exude adventure, excitement, romance, mystery and suspense. They evoke fear, sorrow, sympathy, disbelief, nostalgia, mirth and curiosity. They horrify, amuse, anger, move and arouse.

Pre-Shogun titles

Before James Clavell wrote Shogun, at least 14 Japan-related novels had one-word titles.

Year Title Author
1912 The Typhoon McConaughy
1922 Kimono Paris
1925 Banzai Paris
1944 Bonin Standish
1951 Sado Plomer
1953 Bamboo Bowen
Sayonara Michener
1958 Wakamatsu Kiser
1959 Tamiko Kirkbride
1960 Geisha Longstreet
1961 Daishi-San Lund
1967 Yuki Kirkbride
1968 The Ronin Jennings
1972 Arigato Condon

Clavell, whose 1975 best seller has inspired a wave of Japan novels with one-word titles, has kept his own titles within two words. Among his six novels, two others have had one-word titles: Tai-Pan and the just published Whirlwind.

Post-Shogun titles

All kinds of Japan-related novels with one-word titles have appeared since Shogun. They are important because their authors, like Clavell, have expended as much effort trying to educate as to entertain.

The following 34 Japan novels suggest how popular Shogunesque titles have become in the past dozen years.

Year Title Author
1975 Shogun Clavell
The Katana Olden
The Yakuza Schrader
1978 Dai-San Van Lustbader
Jade Devon
Pearl Silliphant
Sakuran Tolosko
1979 Bushido Osborne
Kensho Schmidt
Shibumi Trevanian
1980 The Ninja Van Lustbader
Samurai Matsubara
Taboo Hays
1981 Rokudan Burch
Tomoe Gozen Salmonson
Shike Shea
1982 Brocade Merlin
Giri Olden
Gonji Rypel
The Katana MacBeth
1983 Daimyo Morell
Dai-Sho Olden
Kensei Schlossstein
Sensei Charney
Tengu Masterton
Zaibatsu Brown
1984 Chikara Skimin
The Miko Van Lustbader
1985 Kenjiro Barr
Kenzo Davy
Yedo Guest
1986 Gaijin Olden
Ronin Christian
Shimabara Bailey

Such titles are at worst meaningless, at best exotic to people who know nothing or little about Japan.

William Wetherall is a free-lance writer who specializes in mental health, ethnic minorities, early history and popular culture. He has a Ph.D. in Asian studies from the University of California at Berkeley, and did his dissertation research at the National Institute of Mental Health in Japan as a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Fellow.