“What’s in a name?” Defending an artist’s vision

As you probably know, I’m a big fan of the late, great espionage writer, Helen MacInnes. For many years, her 21 novels have been out of print, lost in the shuffle of new trends and changing times. Well, I have great news for her fans, as well as for all you younger folks who may not know about her. A British outfit called Titan Books is republishing all of her titles in e-book and trade paperback. Several are already available, with the rest to follow soon. I just reread THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, NORTH FROM ROME, and her famous first novel, ABOVE SUSPICION. They’re all dated, of course, but well-written and terrifically exciting. She was a constant bestseller for 40 years until her death in 1985, and she was the first–and still the best–woman writer in the male-dominated espionage sub-genre. I’m delighted that these books are back in print, with new copyrights from “The Estate of Helen MacInnes” (I’m guessing her children or other relatives), so new generations can enjoy them.


I noticed something odd on Amazon while looking for the new editions of MacInnes’s books, and I also noticed it in the advertising on the books I ordered. So I wrote a note to Titan Books demanding an explanation. Here’s my email in its entirety:

Dear Titan,

Thank you for the beautiful new editions of the Helen MacInnes books. I’m buying them all as they become available. They’ve been out of print for many years, and you’re helping new generations to discover her.

But I have a bone to pick with you:

I’m a writer, and MacInnes was one of my earliest inspirations. I read all her books as a teen back in the 1970s. I bought my first MacInnes book when I was fifteen, and I bought it for one reason only–I loved the title. It was the most elegant, graceful, provocative title I’d ever seen in a bookstore. The book was WHILE STILL WE LIVE, and, to this day, that’s just about the most perfect title I know.

So, why on earth did Titan tamper with it? In all your advertising, the title is now listed as the truly hideous WHILE WE STILL LIVE. Four words: One way, they are exciting and elegant, but the other way, they are clunky and flat and totally lifeless. More to the point, MacInnes’s title is a direct quote from the English translation of the Polish national anthem. Look it up; the official translated lyric is:

Poland has not yet perished
While still we live!

Most importantly, it was *her* title. She chose it, obviously for its beautiful sound and mellifluous qualities. Her decision–her integrity–is at stake here, and she’s no longer here to insist that you honor it. So I must insist for her. Perhaps this was not your fault. If someone involved in “The Estate of Helen MacInnes” is behind this unfortunate alteration, please provide me with their contact information, and I’ll take steps to try to change their minds and preserve the original artist’s vision. But if it was someone at Titan, please forward this appeal to the appropriate office there.

Again, thank you for bringing this wonderful author’s books back to life. (But restore that title!)

I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.


Tom Savage

Okay, this letter may seem petty to some people, but some people aren’t writers. We are very particular about our work, especially our titles. I know I am, and I’m sure MacInnes was as well. Her title was a careful, well-considered choice, and it is not the place of a subsequent reprint publisher to try to second-guess her. Do they think her poetic title sounds too “old-fashioned” or “stilted” or “incomprehensible” in our brave new world of instant information? Do they think “straightening out” the subject (“We”) and the qualifying adverb (“Still”) will sell more copies? My most frightening thought is: Could they be right and I be wrong? But, even if they are, what respect do we owe our artists, specifically the ones who are no longer around to fight the battle?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked on her balcony; “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps. But how would Shakespeare have felt if some later generation had decided to retitle his play ROMEO AND ETHEL THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER? (That joke is not mine–Tom Stoppard wrote it in his 1998 screenplay for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.) I can only feel a deep and personal bond with Helen MacInnes on this subject, so I wrote Titan Books that email.

I’m still waiting for a reply. I’ll let you know if I receive one.

(PS: I received a reply! The mystery is solved here.)