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Sensational Book Titles: A New Trend in Nigerian Literature?

Sensational Book Titles: A New Trend in Nigerian Literature?

A selection of book titles by Nigerian authors

Now, apart from their lurid book titles, it is not clear what the quality of these books really is. Sensational titles are one thing, and content is quite another

By Chimezie Chika

Titles in literature are not often spoken about as an integral part of the writing process, but it is universally agreed, in some form of tacit understanding, that titles are very important to a work of literature, or indeed any piece of writing. A literary work simply cannot exist without a title; it gives the work an identity of some kind and offers insight into its theme. When we read a title such as The Interpreters or The Son of the House or The Concubine, we immediately get an idea of what the story might be about.

Yet, even with this awareness of the integrity of titling literature, no author wants the title of their work to overshadow the contents of the work itself. The story or the contents of a work of literature remains the most important aspect of the work. This is where the author imprints their imagination and thoughts; it is their canvas, the area of their creative dominance. In the modern world of literature, the title is not the exclusive domain of the author. Instead, there are a number of vested interests that decide what the title of a work of art becomes. 

Suggestive inputs are usually made by editors and marketing departments of publishing companies and media houses. At this latitudinal level of publishing, the most important concerns are economic: gaining the customer’s attention and sales. To that effect, great attention is paid to the outward parts of the book, particularly the title and cover design.

A cursory research into modern publishing reveals that titles have been elevated to an even greater pedestal of importance due to the increasingly competitive nature of the art and entertainment world. Literature, as many a public critic has pointed out over the decades, is struggling for attention against television, video games, social media, and other modern forms of entertainment. 

In the 19th century, literature prevailed as perhaps the most prominent form of leisure and pastime. However, since the invention of television in the early 20th century (and the subsequent development of computer technology), that prominence has dwindled considerably, if not alarmingly, and it is more than possible—it is true, in fact, if we must be honest—that literature might be fighting a losing war. 

Is it any wonder, then, that writers and the doyens of publishing are all out with ideas on how to recapture the enormous attention literature is losing to television and social media? A number of strategies such as less voluminous books have been proffered because of the short attention span evident in a world that has become attuned to the high-velocity world of social media and web series. 

Another strategy that seems to be recently gaining notoriety, in contemporary Nigerian literature at least, is the use of sensational titles. In the past three years, we have seen some quite outrageous titles—some of them seem to be drawn out of some kind of low-level social media scuffle—emerge, ranging from the comedic and bewildering to the outright ludicrous.

Titles such as Damilare Kuku’s Nearly All the Men in Lagos are Mad, Ugochukwu Ugonna’s Who Drove Nearly All Lagos Men Mad? (apparently a riposte to the first), Kuku’s recent novel, Only Big Bumbum Matters Tomorrow, Hymar David’s I for Don Blow But I Too Dey Press Phone, and Chioma Rosemary Madumere’s Wives Are for Rainy Days; Side-Chicks Are for Best Days! are all cases in point.

Nigerian author, Damilare Kuku’s Only Big Bumbum Matters Tomorrow
Nigerian author, Damilare Kuku’s Only Big Bumbum Matters Tomorrow

Now, apart from their lurid titles, it is not clear what the quality of these books really is. Sensational titles are one thing, and content is quite another. Reviews of these books are, at best, mixed (and the likes of me will not read them, sorry). Yet, they have readers in their thousands, admittedly. 

One thing that can be said for them is that they draw instant attention. If attention is the immediate goal of the authors, then they are certainly succeeding immensely at it, especially in a world dominated by a similar level of social media sensationalism. In other words, literature as social media, literature as squabbling, literature as hot takes on trending topics, or literature as “subs” and “cold sobo”. 

Some of these authors go as far as co-opting popular social media catch-phrases into their titles, like in Alexandria Humphrey’s Nigerian Men Will Stain Your White. Given the new crop of social media-savvy readers and netizens, I imagine that this sort of sensationalism tickles their fancy, and cuts, in fact, into the very DNA of excitable trends. It aligns perfectly with what makes social media users become suddenly interested in literature. 

If this is what literature needs to compete with social media and television, then we might ask ourselves a number of questions. Is this a good trend? What is its effect on our literature?  Do sensational titles really compromise on quality? Is this trend new to Nigerian literature and literature in general? On the first question, a recent post on X (formerly known as Twitter) by an editor named Harold raised this concern:

Harold's post on X
Harolds post on X

Harold wondered if the trend with sensational titles isn’t detrimental to our literature, even if it might seem fun at first. Though he was attacked from certain quarters for this opinion, the drift of his argument is quite clear to me: the infantilisation of our literature, the emphasis on titles and “trend” rather than content—these are real concerns. But what we must find out is if there are concrete basis for it. 

What is the effect of such a trend, whether good or bad, on our literature? No matter how much I consider it, apart from the increased interest in literature from people who are not habitual readers (they are drawn, of course, by the eye-catching titles), it would be very interesting to see where or how such books have helped the image of our literature. What comes out, after some consideration, is that these books are trying to compete with traditional media. 

In that sense, it’s a noble cause to fight for—that is, for instance, a novel like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah fighting for attention with a TV series like Bridgerton. No matter how great the book is, it is not a war that literature would win in today’s world. Television simply has a lot going for it today with the epidemic of short attention spans—that is one. Secondly, literature and television bring different values to their adherents and to the world. The idea of competing simplifies everything and particularly negates the fact that no matter the fate of literature, there will always be millions of dedicated readers in a world of eight billion people. 

But let us get down to the real question, a question that has come up many times in this discourse: do sensational titles compromise on quality? The straightforward answer is that it does not. But the answer—if, indeed, there is any singular one at all—is not straightforward. For instance, at the height of 19th-century literary sensationalism (the precursor to today’s crime fiction), it is agreed that many of the books produced were bad, melodramatic, and simply for shock value and adrenaline. 

But still, that movement produced novels like those of the Victorian novelist, Wilkie Collins, which have some enduring literary merit. Collins’ The Woman in White has been compared favourably with Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights, as a fine example of gothic literature.

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A fine novel, despite having a bad, eye-catching, or sensational title, does not necessarily diminish its literary quality. I have always thought that John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is, on the surface, not such a great title. But it is a short, profoundly resonant story. In this way, a good or bad title can still be given to an insufferable book. 

Nigerian author, Alexandria Humphrey’s Nigerian Men Will Stain Your White
Nigerian author, Alexandria Humphrey’s Nigerian Men Will Stain Your White

A book like Nearly All the Men in Lagos are Mad has garnered all sorts of attention. It has its champions in those who think it is a light-hearted read; it also has its detractors in those who argue that the quality of the prose and storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. However, for the publisher, this attention has pushed the book to bestseller lists in Nigeria and beyond. 

Again, many of these books have not been given the kind of detailed reviews that serious literature is supposed to elicit. Much of the discussions seem mainly domiciled in certain niche circles on social media, albeit quite powerful ones. As with all other things that happen in the world, the success of one sensational title will spur several others of equal or lesser quality. 

The rise in sensational titles in Nigeria is clearly a result of this, or it plays a huge role in it. The works emerging from this trend often revolve around contemporary issues and social media trends: romance hot takes, relationship updates, redpill philosophies, heartbreak stories, the “soft girl” era, and similar themes.

Ola Rotimi's Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again
Ola Rotimis Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again

Curiously, sensational titles are nothing new in Nigerian literature. What truly matters is the quality, rather than titles that may seem to cater more to a publisher’s marketing strategy. But we must also acknowledge that, even with this, some of these titles can be simply too repulsing to make any sense. A book loses its soul if its title aims to do far more than the book itself. In other words, much ado about nothing. 

At the same time, a book must be careful with the drift or direction of its title: a serious title for a serious book, and vice versa. In the past, we have seen Nigerian book titles such as Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Nkem Nwankwo’s My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours, Ifeoma Okoye’s Men Without Ears, Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and many others. Some of these books have aged well, while others have not, for obvious reasons. 

The best way to perceive these books is to relieve them of the traditional burden of great literature. They are more or less indulgences of the current generation, manifestations of an evolving internet world marked by the actions of scrolling, commenting, “dragging”, and going through a raft of emotions in mere minutes. 

As literature, no one should go about expecting to learn something profound about life from these books or be radically affected by their psychological or moral depth. They are members of the chick-lit genre—the literary confederacy of leisure and warm gossip circles. And there is a space for chick lit in our literature, as in every literature.

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Terrain.org, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Fahmidan Journal, Efiko Magazine, Dappled Things, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture, history, to art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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  • This is reminiscent of the YouTube trend of clickbaity titles and overly exaggerated thumbnails, appealing only to the most simplistic or the most primal of us.
    My personal opinion lies somewhere between the fact that it currently takes more to encourage the average working man to pick up a book, and should I say, read it.

    An example of a book whose title haunted me would be Ngụgi wa Thiong’o’s Shetani Msabalani(Devil on the Cross.) With such a striking title and scintillating writing, Ngụgị had me in his power.

    While well written, the depth of this article is detracted from by the fact of the writer not properly reading the works, so as to form a concrete opinion as to the contents of the books inspiring the trend.

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