Commentary - The rise of the literary jukebox

Need a title for a new book? Look no further than your record collection. ByGraham Bendel

Nowadays, if a young writer really wants to make waves, he'll need more than just a pen. The market requires that little bit more - a large record collection, for instance. Music and literature have always enjoyed a symmetry, right back to the days when Paul McCartney sang about his wish to become a paperback writer. But more than ever, as the boundaries of popular culture merge, and art becomes increasingly homogeneous, bookshelves are beginning to resemble literary jukeboxes, if the titles of many recent books are anything to go by.

For a start, we've had Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero, originally a song by Elvis Costello, and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, also borrowed from an Elvis Costello song. (Incidentally, Hornby's About a Boy is an alteration of the Nirvana track "About a Girl".) The Canadian Douglas Coupland called one of his novels Girlfriend in a Coma, originally a song by The Smiths; and, with Generation X, did Coupland invent another canny media soundbite, or was he merely toasting the singer Billy Idol's first band? William Sutcliffe's Are You Experienced is certainly more than a nod and a wink to the eponymous Hendrix track. More recently, Mike Gayle's My Legendary Girlfriend took its title from a Pulp song. Then there was Martin Amis's Dead Babies, a classic dirge by Alice Cooper.

As publishers compete for ever-shorter attention spans, eagerly attempting to charm a new breed of semi-literates, pop references are an obvious ploy. They work as long as you choose something that is not terminally uncool, such as anything by, say, George Formby or Acker Bilk, which can only damage the reputation of a young, cutting-edge writer. Backpacking in Thailand, leery gangsters and full-scale incest call for something a bit more dynamic than "When I'm Cleaning Windows".

The twisted American writer Dennis Cooper and the playwright Patrick Marber both hit the right note, it seems, by appropriating the title of Joy Division's revered second album, Closer, for their own work. A cheek? Well, Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide aged 24, was himself an avid reader, and his work was rich in literary allusion. His song "Atrocity Exhibition" was just as much an acknowledgement of the darkness of J G Ballard's novel of the same name as it was a symptom of his own implacable depths.

None of this is new. For decades, bands have selected their names and songs through the library process. Soft Machine, the 1960s experimental band, came to us courtesy of a William Burroughs novel; Genesis via . . . well, the Old Testament. Naturally, Steppenwolf was "Born to be Wild" because of Herman Hesse; The Fall's name came from Camus (just as Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne named their recent short-story collection, All Hail the New Puritans, after a record by The Fall); and Manhattan Transfer sung of love surely after reading the famous John Dos Passos work. It goes on. Nirvana paid homage to Patrick Suskind's hugely popular Perfume with their tribute "Scentless Apprentice"; and, at the tail-end of the 1970s, The Cure gave us an inkling about their reading habits with "Killing an Arab", a song describing a key scene in Camus's The Outsider.

All this means that the only trouble with naming your novel after a pop song, as I see it, is the possibility that it is already a tribute to a book; so, ultimately, it appears that you have borrowed, rather unimaginatively, the title of an already regarded classic. Having noticed how the crime-writer Ian Rankin uses song and album titles as the inspiration for his books (examples include "The Hanging Garden", a song by The Cure, and Let it Bleed, an album by the Stones), I believe he has named his recent novel, Dead Souls, as another tribute to Joy Division, perhaps forgetting that their song of the same name is already a eulogy to Gogol's masterpiece. Was Rankin aware of this? Intentionally or not, I wouldn't have thought it was a good idea to nick the title of a masterwork. If I were to call my baby Einstein - or if it were a girl, Vorderman - I would only be heightening impossible expectations of that child, and committing it to a lifetime of bullying.

Still, is it such a crime to pay a compliment to another artist? As Charles Dickens remarked in David Copperfield: "What a lovely work that was of yours."

Graham Bendel works for the New Statesman