Restaurants for the Rest of Us
(On the titles of books.)
I have long been fascinated by the titles of books. I studied titles before I was
able to read the books themselves, and I developed a romantic attachment
to them. Hemingway’s titles were favourites: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to
Arms, For Whom the Bells Toll, Death in the Afternoon – what could be better,
or more alluring? Or how about Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead, The
Armies of the Night, The Prisoner of Sex? A good title doesn’t only name a book;
a good title sings. George Orwell was a virtuoso: Down and Out in Paris and
London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Animal Farm, 1984. A good title cries out to
the reader – part mating call, part challenge, part mystification, part promise. A
good title is an opera in a handful of words. It sums up the meaning of the book,
but it also adds to its meaning, swells it, makes it throb. It transforms the book into
a symbol of something larger, hotter and more fluid than itself. The Tropic of Cancer,
as Henry Miller’s first autobiography had it. A Portrait of the Artist, James Joyce
called his first novel: not a portrait of a particular artist but of the artist, the artist writ
large, trying to write himself large, though perhaps not quite so large (and hot and
wet) as the Tropic of Cancer. The only thing that could be better was Dylan Thomas’s
opera buffo retort: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
When I first started producing books of my own, you can imagine, I was especially
jazzed about what I would call them. I wasn’t trying to compare myself to Hemingway
or Joyce; I was mainly writing scholarly books for a small coterie of readers, and I
was no genius. But I wanted to sing the way they had showed me to sing. And so I
struggled to find titles that summed up the meanings of my books and also added to
them and made them throb. I even found that a lot of the writing I did for my books
was wrenched into place in order to fit and complement the titles I imagined for
them. The titles started writing the books. The name gave birth to the thing that it
named, instead of the other way around. And I liked working that way. It seemed to
make me more virile.
I found out straight away, however, that publishers have different ideas. A title, for a
publisher, is not the father or mother of a book; it is not an opera; it is merely a kind of
wrapping paper with a label. A title has to say: this is the kind of book this is. It is
rather like the bit of brown paper with fluting and upper case lettering its
manufacturer puts around a Snickers Bar. The wrapper says, this a chocolate bar
with some sugary stuff inside, it’s cheap and sweet and its ready to be possessed.
Come buy me and eat me! The publisher will tell the author that one has to entitle a
book as one labels and wraps cheap candy, because how else is anyone to know what
it is? How are the bookstores and the on-line venues going to place it on their real or
their virtual shelves? How are they going to categorise it? How are people going to
find it when they search for it?
You can fight with your publisher over your title, I found, and sometimes you win,
sometimes you lose. Sometimes losing is not so bad a thing. I called my first book,
The Look of Power, followed by a long subtitle about utopias and politics and
technologies of control. Cambridge turned into Literature and Utopian Politics in
Seventeenth-Century England, and eventually I had to agree that that was better.
I am unhappy about my most recent work, though. It was supposed to be called
Restaurants for the Rest of Us. The whole of this book, as mediated by myself, my
personal experiences, and my scholarship in history, literature and culture, was
about two things: restaurants and us. Restaurants: I explained what they have been
and what they are, according to a historical typology of production, space,
consumption and the public sphere. Us: I explained that among the things that
modern humanity has become since the French Revolution is a creature I dub homo
restauranticus: man (and woman) the restaurant-goer.
I wanted to call attention to a love-hate relationship: restaurants and us. I wanted to
talk about how restaurants today, being a part of who we are in our daily practice,
need to be for us – and how mostly, they are not. They are not for us. Part of the fault
is the ‘restaurant industry’ itself (that is what the ‘industry’ calls itself), and its
manipulative adoption of McDonaldisation at nearly all levels of operation, and of
obsessive luxury-mongering at all the others. Part of the fault lies with us, though. It
lies with our inability to put the meaning and value of our daily experience into
words. It lies with our capitulation to a discourse of elitism, where the ‘best’
restaurants are never restaurants that we can use for genuinely productive and
communal purposes. It lies with our surrender to the habits of narcissistic
consumerism which foodiesm encourages today, even while foodieism tries to operate
under a banner of community, and egalitarianism and all things organic. It lies with
our inability to imagine, let alone organise, a society where eating out is an
expression of cultural democracy, of excellence, hospitality and gastronomic artistry
for all – even when eating out is something that all of us do.
Restaurants for the Rest of Us, then. All the people I mentioned the title to (and not
all of my acquaintances are academics or intellectuals) were enthralled by the title.
Instinctively, they knew what it meant. They knew that every now and then they
would come upon a restaurant for them, for them in a non-narcissistic, non-
pretentious, but joyful and generous way. After all, cooking for other people is one of
the best things one can do, if one is minded toward it; and so is eating other people’s
food. So the title stood the test of conversation, and I went on writing the book with
my original title in mind.
As we came closer to our production date, however, my publisher began having
second thoughts. The marketing people he spoke to didn’t understand the title. They
didn’t know how to sell a book with a title like that. And so I went round and round
with the publisher. We would come up with a word that better described the book to
potential sellers and buyers. All kinds of variants were tried. Restaurants for the
Rest of Us was out. We would put it in a subtitle, maybe. Book-marketers in the
United States were especially adamant. None of this ‘for the rest of us’ stuff. They
wanted a book that didn’t seem to take sides, that didn’t seem to espouse any values,
and that didn’t even hint at social reform in the direction of that dreaded thing,
socialism. (Let us leave alone the fact that two of the greatest restaurant countries in
the world, France and Italy, have very strong socialist traditions – which I believe is
not an accident.) Eventually, we went back and forth so much that the word
restaurant itself dropped out of the title. Apparently, what the book-marketers wanted
to sell was a book about nothing.
In a last ditch effort, I came up with something which at least expressed, at one and
the same time, that the book was about food and that the book might be fun to read,
with an allusion to restaurants in the subtitle. No one seems to mind the new title.
But it turns out that it has been used before. And it turns out too that very few people
seem to know, at least instinctively, from hearing the title, what the book is about.
The title doesn’t sing. It doesn’t seduce, it doesn’t challenge, it doesn’t mystify, and it
doesn’t make promises. But unfortunately, from here on out, the title is . . . mine.