Daughters, darkness, and deadly domiciles: judging a book by its title

Several years ago, I posted an item called Choosing a Title for Your Book; it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the popular ‘formulas’ commonly used to create book titles. The number of titles that contain ‘society’ or ‘club’, for example, as in Richard Osman’s highly successful The Thursday Murder Club. The use of a person’s name within formulation ‘The + adjective + noun + of + name’ formation also continues to be popular. Katherine Cowly’s newly released-take on one of Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet being one current example, or last year’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (the names involved are often quirky).

Since writing that post, I have noticed several other apparent fashions in book titles, including those below.

1. The Book-list Compiler’s Daughter

I am not sure where this one began. There is the long short story The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty  published in 1969. Philip Pullman published The Firework Maker’s Daughter in 1995. And well before that Alexander Puskhin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1838). But at some point early this century, this classification of book title became particularly popular – perhaps with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards in 2005 (though is ‘memory keeper’ a profession?)? Or with Elizabeth Hyde’s The Abortionist’s Daughter in 2006?

Whatever the case, we now have:

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Santa Montefiore
The Botanist’s Daughter by Kate Nunn
The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim
The Apothecary’s Daughter by Charlotte Betts
The Glovemaker’s Daughter by Leah Fleming…

And on it goes, there being dozens of examples. Initially, I was not sure what I thought about the female protagonist being defined by her (often male) parent. It’s fair to point out that a lot of these are historical fiction, though, helpfully signified by the correspondingly old-fashioned occupations.

In fact, in the course of looking into the proliferation of these titles, I came across an article in The Booklist by Biz Hyzy, who considers the matter more closely, in addition to providing a list of titles that contain a possessive noun followed by ‘wife’ (exemplified by The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and many others). Do such titles “reduce the leading female to a subsidiary role,” wonders Hyzy, or do they, perhaps more reasonably, “contextualize a book’s setting or conflict”?

Personally, I see the sense of the latter argument. I can also tolerate ‘Daughters’ more than the plethora of thriller titles featuring ‘girl’ (where a ‘woman’ is referred to) that followed the publishing phenomena of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train a few years ago. And whatever the case, the ‘Daughter stratagem’ must be working well: many of the above-listed writers are well-known and commercially successful.


2. The Startling yet Enduring Saga of the Exceedingly Long Title

Lengthy titles are nothing new of course. Many authors have broken the ‘rule of thumb’ that a book name should contain five words or fewer. Consider Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time published in 2003 and Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café back in 1987. Then there was the mighty And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game by David Forrest back in ’69. Not to mention The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886), or Sterne’s 1759 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Still, the long title is on the rise, apparently. Indeed, nowadays, length affords titles a certain old-fashioned charm. The approach has also been popular for children’s books, too (think Rowling’s Harry Potter series).

In his 2019 article Are Book Titles Getting Longer?, Michael Tauberg analysed this print trend based on New York Times Bestsellers published since 2011. He concluded that “Fiction titles went from averaging about 2.5 words to almost 3 now.” It doesn’t sound that long but is, of course, an average with, anecdotally, many fiction titles being five or six words and upward. Tauberg notes a lot of these belong to series – Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, etc.

A quick sample of other books from roughly the past decade boasting eight words or more (not counting those with colons) includes:
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (depends how you count that adjective!).
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (the first in a children’s book series)
The New York Regional Mormon Singles Hallowe’en Dance by Elna Baker
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell
The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals  by Wendy Jones (a fine example of the ‘old-world’ effect, forsooth).

The afore-mentioned devices of building the title around a Club or Society facilitates a long title, of course, such as The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hedrix. As do the ‘name’ books: take David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), for instance.

3. It’s All Gone Dark

Another trend Tauberg noted is the increased use of the word Dark’ in fiction titles since 2016. As you may expect, this word crosses genres. It seems especially popular for ‘twisty’ thrillers, detective novels, and shadowy fantasy, but also appears in children’s fiction and general fiction titles.

Some contemporary examples include:
In the Dark by Vicki Pitts (psychological thriller)
Dark Pines by Will Dean (crime noir)
The Dark Heart of Magic by Jennifer Estep (teen urban fantasy)
Dark Game by Rachel Lynch (Detective)
How to Make Friends with the Dark by Jennifer Niven (children and teens)
My Dark Vanessa by Elizabeth Kate Russell (fiction / political fiction).

4. (Don’t) Meet the Parents. Or the Neighbours

Of late, psychological thrillers have also stirred up some good old-fashioned paranoia about spouses,  friends, and those living nearby. Hence, based on a cursory search, and a fraction of what came up:
The Perfect Father by Charlotte Duckworth
The Stepmother by Ros Carne
The Mothers by Sarah J. Naughton
My Husband’s Girlfriend by Stella Browne
The Husband Thief by MJ Hardy
The First Husband by McGarvey Black
What my Husband Did by Kerry Wilkinson
A Friend Like That by Marissa Finch
Your Closest Friend by Karen Perry
The Best Friend by Shalini Boland
The Woman Next Door by Sue Watson
The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
The Girl Next Door by Phoebe Morgan (nattily combining both ‘girl’ and a neighbouring property in one go)
… and many others.

Be careful who your friends are indeed. Or whom you marry. Or move in next door to. Look, just trust no one, okay.

In the End…

Needless to say, these somewhat formulaic approaches to titling books are no accident. They are intended to build on the successful previous novels by other authors, indicating ‘comps’, i.e. ‘comparisons’ with them. Rather than wanting the book title to ‘stand out’ from the rest (a riskier strategy), the general tactic here is to promote sales by providing the reader with reassuring familiarity. Presumably, it also helps if they pop up in searches for similarly named works.

How to stand out in a crowd?

Don’t get me wrong: no disrespect is intended by this compilation – which is the main reason I have added in links to the books listed. It’s hard enough to sell in a crowded market. And I am certainly not criticising the novels themselves. Hands up, I haven’t even read most of them – but the few I have read I enjoyed, plus I have added a couple of the others to my TBR list.

No, it is not a straightforward matter to come up with a book name. Writer and humourist Dave Barry had this to say: “It isn’t easy, coming up with book titles. A lot of the really good ones are taken. Thin Thighs in 30 Days, for example. Also The Bible.” in Dave Barry Is from Mars and Venus (2009).

What impact does the book title have on what you pick out to read?

Are there any types of titles that particularly attract you – or put you off?

Image thanks
Main image photo by Stephen Phillips – Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash
Smaller image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

25 thoughts on “Daughters, darkness, and deadly domiciles: judging a book by its title

  1. I always go for recommendations rather than titles. You may be amused by ‘Chambers Cryptic Crosswords and How to Solve them’ which features in https://derrickjknight.com/2012/07/12/mordred/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a wonderful title – I much prefer it to a ‘How to solve…’ format.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I choose books by their title and the trouble with reading books on a Kindle is that you don’t see the cover and I often forget what titles I have read or even of the novel I am currently reading. The longest title of my own novels is 7 words and the shortest, 2.

    Like

    1. I know what you mean – for all the benefits of the Kindle, I do miss easy flicking back and forth. I don’t think I am influenced by titles either – but never sure I can confidently say marketing doesn’t affect me! It’s probably more so than I think.

      Like

  3. No impact at all. I barely remember the title even when I’m reading a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point. Personally, I can think of many more elements I am impacted by, author, genre, possibly cover…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too! I’m a bit of a mood reader, and I can tell by the cover if it’s what I’m in the mood for. And the blurb…blurb is key

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The blurb, of course, how could I forget. Agree a good blurb is essential.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi. I like long titles, and am glad to read that they are making a comeback. There’s something endearingly awkward about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Endearingly awkward’ sounds like the perfect way to sum them up.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. One of your many interesting quirky postings on topics I’d never considered before…I shall be trying to spot for the ‘The + adjective + noun + of + name’ formula.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw one just this morning – The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones! Think that one’s a children’s book.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like short titles. Though I did see “the curious incident…” in a theatre in London a few years back.
    Are those your books on the banner? Asimov’s “Foundation”, is a great title and a great book.
    Au revoir

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t seen the play of Curious Incident, though I loved the book, and see the stage version has good reviews. Ah theatres! Hopefully not too long now…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The scenery was very well put. Well done. And yes, theatre will a bonus when they reopen. Coz they will. 👏🏻

        Like

  7. Most of these tell a lot about the genre too, don’t you think, specifically that they are literary fiction. None of these sound like thrillers or mysteries. And, I don’t like template titles (like the love of ‘girl’ in the title after ‘Gone Girl Gone’ — I think that was the title) so would probably skip most of these just because of that.

    Excellent ‘informal essay’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very kind. I agree that template titles can indicate book genre – such as the ‘club / society’ titles, which often seem to suggest cozy fiction. I do find it a bit off-putting, too; it makes me wonder if the contents are also formulaic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point, or likewise non-creative.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Very long titles definitely put me off.
    I roll my eyes sometimes when I see a parade of similarly titled books. But, you are right – if someone figures out the magic formula that helps them sell their book… kudos to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree on both points. If a book title seems formulaic, I wonder if the book itself is going to be ‘writing by numbers’ as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Never buy books by their title. I rarely remember titles. I look at the titles after the cover catches my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree there are many things I consider before title – author, cover, blurb, reviews… It may be odd, but I enjoy a clever title without necessarily wanting to read the book 😕

      Like

  10. That second kind of title puts me off, though I do plan to read Tristram Shandy this year! I wonder if Jekyll and Hyde wasn’t the blue print. Notice how I refer to both with shorter names 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think longer titles give books a more Victorian, even ‘Gothic’ feel. Presumably that antiquated feel is what some authors – or publishers – are going for with long titles.
      Personally, I found Tristram Shandy entertaining in parts, surprisingly ‘modern’ but hard going overall. I wonder if an editor would take a lot of red pen to it today.

      Like

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