The End of Creative Titles

Let’s play a game. You’ll probably like what we’re about to do, because it involves mocking a technique employed by ‘modern media,’ which most people find about as agreeable as an eviction notice. Here are the rules. Pick a word that’s at least a little charged, and my job is to find a case where this word was inserted (often clumsily) into a very peculiar formula: the title “The End of X.”[1] “Cucumbers,” “horseradish” and “mayonnaise” don’t work. But “men,” “women,” and “sex” do. The End of Men is the title of a 2010 book and Atlantic article; The End of Women is a headline selected by the ever-relevant website LifeSiteNews; The End of Sex is a recent book inveighing against Hookup Culture (scare-quotes omitted).

Perhaps you’re not convinced that there’s a veritable The End of X pandemic afoot, so I’ll furnish some more examples. There’s The End of War,[2] The End of Poverty,[3] Is This The End of Cigarettes?,[4] and The End of Death,[5] which all seem terrific—consistent with human progress and all that. Is This The End of the Republican Party In America?,[6] The End of the Smartphone Era Is Coming,[7] The End of Sleep,[8] and The End of Magic[9] strike me as a little more ambiguous, while The End of Newspapers,[10] The End of Fossil Fuel,[11] and The End of Love[12] sound downright disagreeable.

Here’s the rub: titles involving the phrase The End of X (or some permutation thereof) have proliferated in recent years. It’s easy to dismiss the phenomenon as another regrettable form of clickbait: with websites or bookstores vying for the attention of increasingly distracted buyers, making use of an easy formula will almost certainly attract more customers. I’d even wager some data-crunchers have run the analytics on The End of X versus Is This The End of X? or The End of X is Near. (The next questions to be analyzed: does the article play better with or without GIFs? With snarky captions? What about memes?)

Actually, the curious ascent of The End of X is not terribly chilling news from a creative perspective; look elsewhere for a thinkpiece bemoaning authors’ lack of invention when settling on a title. The same forces that lead to homogenized headlines have also resulted in highly personalized ad campaigns (see: the sidebar along your Facebook wall). Naming your book “The End of War” might sell a few more copies than titling it “No More War” or “War is Over” or any number of erudite options that would repel the awfully desirable Middlebrow Consumer, in which case: good job. If I write a book one day, I promise you that I will try to sell as many copies as humanly fucking possible. Certainly, there’s something repulsive about commodifying any creative product for personal gain, titles included—but as long as we still suffer from UpWorthy, Walmart, and reality TV, we can aim our collective rage elsewhere. It’s not worth sending for the pitchforks and torches on this one.

Still, even if The End of X constitutes nothing but more or less innocuous clickbait, why is there such a cultural phenomenon, and what does it say about us as consumers? Put otherwise: even if we shouldn’t blame authors for calling their works The End of X, why is this title such a smash?

I’m deeply skeptical of the thinking that life today moves that much faster than it “used to”; Sinclair Lewis criticized the American philosophy of “zip” as long ago as Babbit, and I think it’s melodramatic to castigate Buzzfeed as any shallower than the television our parents watched. More likely, we’re improving. I’ll grant that 21st century newsmedia is, broadly, a head-high of empty content and oversaturated conversations, but most news was always awful. These days, we’re subjected to UpWorthy, yet we also delight in remarkable investigations that synthesize a variety of media. If you can’t find serious thinking on the Internet, you’re not looking very hard.

What The End of X phenomenon instructs us, however, is that I’m in the minority. Media titled The End of X splice today into a new epoch; before, it was The Time of Sleep, and now, we must make do, as it’s The End of Sleep. Reading these titles, you get the sense that the apocalypse is nigh—that humanity’s hurtling energies have felled some immovable institution. When people think about what life is like today, it’s clear that they sense a deep fracture. And maybe that’s why The End of X media are so popular.

Let’s be precise about all this. The cultural chasm that we’re enamored with re-identifying—the one that drives us to pick up the book titled The End of X—is not simply a rediscovery of some postwar existential ennui. Rather, the prevalence of works called The End of X speaks to a new, shallow optimism that’s hijacked our thinking. We’re obsessed with marveling at our era’s newness. It’s a thought many of us have considered each time the latest iPhone comes out: people lap up new stuff. (Or at least, people lap up the same old stuff, so long as it’s clothed in the skin of the new stuff.) Similarly, people like to buy books that describe how the constants that used to undergird human society are also being replaced by the New, the Sleekest, and the Best (or, equally, the New, the Scariest, and the Worst). Just as the halflife of product lines has dwindled, so too our tolerance for any structural sameness has fallen away. We’re no longer confortable accepting the old systems underpinning society: even those concepts like Sleep and Sex have got to go.

Entropy beckons. This year will be better, or worse, or different. We buy a book titled The End of X to confirm to ourselves that our profound boredom will finally meet its merciful end. The The End of X phenomenon illustrates that we still yearn for something, someone to deliver even a modicum of change we can believe in.

And we won’t find it in whatever we end up reading. The funny thing about media titled The End of X is that they are often predictions about the future. Take a deep breath, because Love is here to stay—and so are Cigarettes and Poverty. For the most part, these works might as well be titled The End of X Is Relatively Far Off.

 

[1] Or titles including this phrase: for example, Is This The End of X? In the titles I cite below, I occasionally only cite this part of the phrase. I think that’s fair. 

[2] http://www.amazon.com/The-End-War-John-Horgan/dp/1936365367

[3] http://www.theendofpoverty.com/

[4] http://www.newsmaxhealth.com/Health-News/cigarettes-cigarette-free-American-smoking-rates-tobacco/2014/02/10/id/551941/

[5] http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Death-Volume-One/dp/0983842108

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randy-moody-/republican-war-on-women_b_4269638.html

[7] http://www.businessinsider.com/the-end-of-the-smartphone-era-is-coming-2012-11

[8] http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/jessa-gamble-life-without-sleep/

[9] http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Magic-Ariel-Glucklich/dp/0195108809

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/17/opinion/17iht-edbenilde.html?pagewanted=all

[11] http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/24/peak-oil-production-business-energy-nelder.html. PS: If you find this piece overwrought, take the first paragraph of the Forbes headline for a spin: “You will never see cheap gasoline again. You will probably never see cheap energy again. Oil, natural gas and coal are set to peak and go into decline within the next decade, and no technology can change that.”

[12] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1827578/