Some thoughts about book titles

A while back I clicked on a link that promised "the summer's best reads," and I was disappointed to realize that many of the books had titles that defined a woman by her relationship to a man: Somebody's Daughter, Somebody's Wife. Yet these books are being promoted as women's fiction: romance, chick lit. To me, that's problematic. I don't really want to read about a woman who is defined, whether by herself or by others (including the author), by the men in her life.

Then I realized I had no idea whether I'd chosen reading material, whether consciously or unconsciously, that reflected this opinion. I went through the list of books I've read over the past few years, which is about 375 books.

Lots of them had "girl" or "woman" in the title, including these:
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, by P.D. James
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Who Played with Fire and Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson
The Chalk Girl, by Carol O'Connell
The Blue Girl, by Charles de Lint

However, only two titles defined a woman by her relationship to a man:
The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon
The Spy's Wife, by Reginald Hill

In the Donna Leon book, the girl in question is a murder victim, so almost by definition she's going to be characterized by her relationships with others (including the policeman who investigates the crime). The Reginald Hill book has as its central character a wife who is suddenly confronted with the fact that her husband is a spy, so the book is about her coming to terms with this new information and its impact on her life. Plus, it's Reginald Hill, which means it's going to be a good book no matter the title :-)

I'm a bit surprised, given the frequency of such titles, that I've managed to avoid them, and I don't know whether it's a conscious decision. But given how many book titles describe women, whether they are blue or silent or playing with fire, I think I do have some kind of bias.

For the sake of argument, I did a quick check on the male equivalents. Only The Chimney Sweeper's Boy (Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine) included a relationship in the title.

One Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    Book Titles

    Having read your passage here, it got me thinking, or rather fit in with a thread that has remained in mind since a gradutae class on feminism, race, and sexuality I took a few semesters ago. The professor, Dr. Carol Siegel, proposed in class again and again, that things have been changing. In the plodding day to day of our existence, though, it seems that nothing has changed. Consider the breadths of the titles that define women by their relationships or thier dependency upon men. The discussion about titles draws me back to Chinua Achebe’s scathing refutation of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as a canonical text. Achebe’s contention that Conrad was a “thoroughgoing racist” is a continuing point of debate, but it is also a watermark. How many authors would dream of writing a story such as “Heart of Darkness” today and naming it such. Although there are problably examples of racist or extereme conservatives who might, I would argue that society has, as a larger whole, moved beyond the attitudes reflected in this — albiet quite old– example. So when you ask the question, Stacia, what is in a title, I think it draws attention, and awareness to the problem, as have other authors, like Achebe. And that is how things change. Bravo, then. Good job. Let us continue to think about this craft we engage in, about how we write, and continue to work toward the improvement of our skills, abilities, knowledge, and importantly, question the reasons why we follow certain conventions.

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