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Anna Karenina as The Bureaucrat's Wife: The Fight for Women's Identity in Book Titles

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It came to a head with The Sausage-Maker's Daughter. I mean no offense to the book or its author; it might be a perfectly wonderful piece of writing, but we'll never know from its title. But has it come to this, American publishers? Is it really preferable to go with a title that ugly and unwieldy in order to have the sentimentally-loaded word "daughter" in the title?

Author Emily St. John Mandel wrote an excellent piece for The Millions on this subject in March 2012 in which she crunched the numbers on the use of "The ___'s Daughter". Combing Goodreads, she found 530 titles with this naming convention, with usage really starting to take off around 2004. Now, as Emily St. John Mandel pointed out, authors are not always responsible for the titles of their books, any more than they have control over covers. And I admit that I'm open to criticism as the titles of my books are hardly towering examples of imagination; my agent came up with the title of my first book, The Taker, and the rest of the books in the trilogy (The Reckoning, The Descent) needed to follow suit.

Be that as it may, as a woman, I'm annoyed (and somewhat insulted) by the preponderance of these distaff titles. Sure, books with these sorts of titles have a coziness to them. They're instantly familiar with readers, as though any new book with "daughter" or "wife" in the title was somehow distantly related to that book they enjoyed last year with the similar title and should be given the benefit of the doubt, like a long lost cousin suddenly shown up on your doorstep.

But if you were to look at book titles, you might think America was a country of women who were only wives or daughters, that these are the only two ways by which we can be defined. And of course, we are those things but we are other things, too. We have aspirations of our own. Birth and marriage are not the only two accomplishments in our lives. I am not only The Musician's Wife and The Army Sergeant's Daughter, but also The Intelligence Analyst, The Novelist and The Woman Who Wrote Groundbreaking Methodologies. Which book would you rather read? (Granted, maybe not the latter.)

The analyst in me wonders if the popularity of this trend says something about the status of women in American society today. If it plays--albeit, perhaps unconsciously--into the country's growing conservatism. If it's an indication that it's easier in America to pass through life as someone's wife or daughter rather than be seen as an individual in your own right.

Apparently, similar titling conventions don't appeal to male readers. I used Mandel's approach, searching Goodreads for books with the titles "The ___'s Son" or "The ___'s Husband". While there were a few books with the word "son" in the title, it wasn't used the same way, that is, to define the character by that specific role. And there were no occurrences of "husband" used this way--but I doubt you needed me to tell you that.

I put off writing this post for a long time because I have author friends with books that fall in this category and I was afraid of offending them. I mean no disrespect to any of the authors or books that use this titling convention--well, none except for The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch. It's this title that got me thinking about the crassness of this convention. As a reader, you wouldn't be faulted for thinking The Hangman's Daughter was a book about, you know, the hangman's daughter: told from her POV, full of her thoughts, her adventures, her dreams and aspirations. But you'd be wrong. The book should really be titled The Hangman and the Man Who Would Be The Hangman's Son-in-Law. There are a few passages told from the hangman's daughter POV but for the most part she only exists as the saucy love object of one of the main characters, getting herself in trouble so that she can be conveniently rescued. It is a perfect example of what is wrong with the casual use of these titles: they play on female readers' tender feelings for a part of our lives (the sweet nostalgia of childhood, for example) but leave us boxed up in that role.

Think of the marvelous books that have been written about singular women, books that bore the name of their protagonists. Whether these stories were tragic, cautionary, or inspirational, they made icons of their protagonists. What might the world have lost if, instead of letting these women stand on their own two feet, we'd been given these forgettable titles:

Anna Karenina: The Bureaucrat's Wife
Tess of the D'Urbervilles: The Peddler's Daughter
Emma Bovary: The Public Health Official's Wife
Lolita: The Pedophile's Stepdaughter
Olive Kitteridge: The Pharmacist's Cranky Wife
Anne of Green Gables: The Farmer's Adopted Daughter

Feel free to add your own in the Comments.