On a flight a few months ago, a woman in the aisle in front of me was reading a book called The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Let me be clear that I have zero issues with the book or its author. I don’t know anything about it, aside from its title.
Which is all I need to know to start cursing.
For fuck’s sake, can we please stop giving books titles that define women by their existence in relation to men?
I mean, come-the-fuck-on, I didn’t even do any real research or spend more than a half hour, and I came-up with this list:
The Shoemaker’s Wife
The Aviator’s Wife
The Headmaster’s Wife
The Traitor’s Wife
The Time Traveler’s Wife
(I also found The Lost Wife and The Silent Wife, but I’m letting these go because while they do still define the character as “wife” they do not specifically state the profession of the husband)
The Calligrapher’s Daughter
The Blood letter’s Daughter
The Baker’s Daughter
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
The Baker’s Daughter
The Hangman’s Daughter
The Merchant’s Daughter
The Frenchman’s Daughters
The Sorcerer’s Daughter
The Mummifier’s Daughter
The Doctor’s Daughter
The Rancher’s Daughter
The Tutor’s Daughter
The Captain’s Daughter
The Ice Captain’s Daughter (I guess she wears a thicker coat)
The Profiler’s Daughter
The Madman’s Daughter
The Ambassador’s Daughter
The Apothecary’s Daughter
The Vampire Hunter’s Daughter
The Vampire Pirate’s Daughter (Hope these two don’t’ meet!)
The Tyrant’s Daughter
The Daughter of the God-King
A Daughter of Warwick
An entire series called Gangsta’s Daughter
An entire series called The Hangman’s Daughter
An entire series called The Scavenger’s Daughters
An entire series called The Billionaire’s Daughter
An Entire Series called The Treadwell Academy wherein each book is called something like The Tycoon’s Daughter
An entire series called The Daughters of Lancaster County wherein each book is called something like The Bishop’s Daughter.
Some of these books are young adult and some of these books are literary and some of these books are genre. Regardless, they all follow the pattern of:
The (Male’s Profession) (Female Relation)
All the words in all of the goddamn English Language to put together for book titles, and yet here we stand. I mean, look, it’s not as if we don’t have a history of great books with such titles, The Bishop’s Wife, The Optimist’s Daughter, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, etc..
But sweet pity that’s a lot of books within the last few years. And I think there are several reasons for this trend (and I’m gonna go ahead and call it a trend).
For starters, there is the popularity of the books The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.
So part of the reason for this title pattern seems to be a result of publishers wanting to capitalize on the popularity of these books. I understand that there are market forces at play here. I do.
Another factor is that stories traditionally told by and about famous men are currently being re-examined through the eyes of women. The Paris Wife is a fictional take on the romance between Earnest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson. There’s a nonfiction book called The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. I think you get what it’s about.
Sweet. Keep-it-up. I dig new perspectives on familiar tales. (I myself am going to get into it about Edith, aka Lot’s Wife, at some point)
I also enjoy when authors take marginal fictional women characters and create whole worlds for them. Ahab’s Wife took a teeny passage from Moby Dick and created a deeply compelling heroine from it.
Let’s be clear, though, one doesn’t have to use this title pattern to write from these perspectives. The Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in Jane Eyre. And Betty Shabazz: A Journey of Strength from Wife to Widow to Heroine isn’t titled Malcolm X’s Wife.
But most of the books I’m talking about aren’t telling us about the women in the lives of famous men, and most are not telling the stories of marginalized fictional women. Most of these books create new fictional worlds, and most of these books feature women as the main characters, and yet these books still carry titles that define the main character by their male relation.
Look, it makes complete sense for some of these books to be titled in this way (The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example). I am not in any way saying any individual book’s title is problematic, nor am I saying that any individual book has an improper title or a derivative one.
I’m talking about the trend. I’ll keep repeating this throughout: I am discussing the trend, not the individual. This distinction between a discussion of the personal/individual verses the group/cultural seems to get lost sometimes. Like when someone says “rape culture” or “culture of misogyny” and people respond with “Not All Men.”
Here’s something else I’m not saying: I am also not saying that I never want any story to be about a character whose male relation is the most formidable force in her life. I’d have to give-up A Doll’s House, for starters, and I’m not willing to do that.
So, sure, title it The Man with an Occupation’s Female Relation.
But if you’ve got a book about a woman, even one who is primarily formed by a male figure, why not give a few other titles a whirl? Just to break out of the pattern?
You could, you know, title it Anna Karenina.
Okay, that one’s taken.
I should probably get to the part where I talk about why this bothers me as much as it does. I guess I’m still working this out (though I’ve been ranting about it for a few years now).
For starters, there’s just the sheer boredom of having so many things titled in the same manner. Remember when Nathan Englander wrote that great story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank as his way of connecting his stories to Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?. And then remember when every fucking thing in the goddamn universe started using a variation on this title?
Yeah. It’s like that.
For me it is, at any rate.
And let’s keep in mind, yet again, that I have zero beef with the actual articles I’ve linked to themselves. Some of them, particularly this one, are good (and if you haven’t read the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay to which this one refers, do yourself a favor and get to it).
But do all of these articles need some variation on this title? “What We Talk About When We Talk About Minimalism”? Really?
So, yeah, one reason why The Man with an Occupation’s Female Relation titles bother me is because there are just way too many of them. But maybe I wouldn’t be quite so perturbed by the trend if I didn’t also think it might be one teeny-tiny sign of a cultural idea that women only hold interest/value in as far as they are related to a man.
To me these titles say “Here’s a book about a woman who is interesting/compelling/important because of the occupation of the man in her life.”
We can see this in the rhetoric about the treatment of women that states things like “Hey Fellas, remember she’s someone’s daughter, sister, mother, wife,” or “treat her like you’d treat your own daughter.”
Which is so prevalent that it is still echoed in even the most well-intentioned statements:
The idea, as “Men Against Violence” states on the linked site, is “Mentioning her connection 2 others is a good way to engage men.”
No. No it isn’t. Just in case there is any doubt, you can hear a kid in the Stubenville video ask this, and the response from the rapist is “she’s not.”
We desperately need to get to this place in our culture
Now, to bring this back to literary characters and book titles, I’d d say that this trend in book titles echoes that same line of thinking: women are only valuable in their reltionships to men.
I can hear half-a-dozen people firing-up their laptops to ask if I want all women characters to be single orphans.
The thing is, I don’t want all women in books to be any one or two or even three things. I want variety. You know what a list like the one I half-assedly assembled above tells me? Variety might just be a little lacking.
Two years ago, Emily St. John Mandell wrote a much better piece than mine for The Millions that focused specifically on the “daughter” titles. It includes research and graphs and all kinds of wonderful stuff. If you’re interested in just how all of this really breaks-down, you should check it out.
Alma Katsu also discussed this trend two years ago, having been brought to breaking point (and who could blame her?) by a book called The Sausage Maker’s Wife She includes a re-titling of literature about women using this pattern:
Anna Karenina– The Bureaucrat’s Wife
Tess of the D’Urbervilles– The Peddler’s Daughter
Emma Bovary-The Public Health Official’s Wife
Olive Kitteridge– The Pharmacist’s Wife
Anne of Green Gables– The Farmer’s Adopted Daughter
Slightly less compelling, right?
So it’s been at least two years since people began noticing and publicly commenting on this trend, and yet here we are, still pushing-out these titles in droves. One would think the list of occupations might grow thin. (Which just might be the case, if The Sausage Maker’s Wife is anything to go by)
What to do then? Other than write ranty little blog posts only my friends will read?
I would ask publishers to stop giving books these kinds of titles, but I’m pretty sure if people were tending to buy books with the words “armpit hair” in the title, publishers wouldn’t flinch at releasing book after book with this phrase. Publisher’s don’t give a shit how ridiculous this trend is as long as it sells. It’s not their job. It’s our job as readers.
So maybe what we can do is start talking about this more. The more backlash we gather, the more publishers have to consider how much they are willing to piss-off their readership. (And I contend that anyone who cares enough about books to get pissed-off about their titles makes-up a decent part of most readerships.)
Or maybe this won’t do anything. I don’t know. I just really, really hope that the next few years doesn’t see this trend continue.
The fancy reason is because these titles support the cultural idea that a woman’s worth is reliant on a male relation.
The non-fancy reason is because they are boring the ever-loving-fuck out of me.
Before you think me completely biased (though I most certainly am at least somewhat so), I did try to find titles with “Son” and “Husband” and “Father” in the title. I mean, I used the same bullshit “research” method that I used to find the other list, meaning I typed these words into Amazon and Google and Goodreads like a good little college Freshman. These books do exist, of course, but they do not seem to exist in the numbers that the “Wife” and “Daughter” titles do. Emily St. John Mandell (mentioned above), who did real research, found the same.
And yes, there are books that identify a mother in the occupational role. I’m pretty sure I weeded those out of my list above, but I might have missed a few. It’s far more common for the occupation-holding position to be a male one. Two books with a female in the occupational role that I did find were The Heretic’s Daughter and The Witch’s Daughter, and I would submit that “Heretic” and “Witch” aren’t exactly on-par with “Captain” and “God-King.”
Special Thanks to Brooke O. Sheridan for creating the image I used for this post. She’s just one of the most talented people ever, and such an excellent friend.