Titles have a way of coming in waves. There was a time a few years back when it seemed like vast numbers of books were being published on the subject of secret lives, as in The Secret Life of Bees, The Secret Lives of Buildings, The Secret Lives of Words, etc. Our literature seems to hold a parallel obsession with vanishing, which involves of course any number of titles involving the words “Disappear” or “Vanishing” or “Lost.”
But no trend that I’ve ever noticed has seemed quite so pervasive as the daughter phenomenon. Seriously, once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere. A recent issue of Shelf Awareness had ads for both The Sausage Maker’s Daughters and The Witch’s Daughter. I’m Facebook friends with the authors of The Hummingbird’s Daughter, The Baker’s Daughter, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, and The Murderer’s Daughters, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
I was curious to see how many of these books there actually are, so I did a search for books with “The” and “Daughter” in their titles on Goodreads. Afterward I spent some time copying and pasting all instances of The ___’s Daughter into an Excel spreadsheet. How much time? A lot, because I’m studying a foreign language, and cutting and pasting text is exactly the kind of mindless activity that can be done while I’m listening to language podcasts.
I was careful to collect only books that adhered to the “The ___’s Daughter” formula. So I didn’t include The Murderer’s Daughters, for example, or The Kitchen Daughter. Even leaving those variations out, though, and deleting any instances where the same book appeared more than once in the search results, the number of The ___’s Daughter books out there is truly staggering.
Once I went back over my spreadsheet to remove duplications, I was left with 530 titles.
But I don’t mean to suggest that five hundred and thirty represents the total number of these books. Five hundred and thirty was just the arbitrary point where I decided to stop counting, because the project was starting to take too much time. I was only on page 88 of 200 pages of search results.
To be clear, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with calling one’s book The ___’s Daughter. I think those titles have a marvelous rhythm to them. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder why there seemed to be so many of them.
Where to begin? I could ask any of the four or five authors I know with Daughter titles, but as a general rule I hesitate to ask any author to comment publicly on either the title or the cover art of their books. These are things over which the author doesn’t necessarily have much control, and I know of at least one author whose book’s gone to press with a title that the author doesn’t particularly care for. If it should happen that an author doesn’t love the title they end up with, this isn’t something they can really talk about publicly without alienating their publisher.
No authors, then, because I don’t want to put anyone in an awkward position. I turned, as I like to do whenever a publishing-related question arises, to the booksellers. Partly because I know a lot of independent booksellers and they’re some of my favorite people, and partly because one of the things I’ve noticed about independent booksellers is that they’re much more outspoken about publishing than most people in publishing are. It’s a nice quality.
Stephanie Anderson is the manager of WORD in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She’s one of those people who probably reads more books in a month than I read in a year and knows everything there is to know about bookselling. I asked her if The ___’s Daughter books sell better than other books, or if she had any other theories about why there are so many of them. “If I have any theory about it at all,” she said…
…it’s that familiar-sounding titles drive sales because they help give readers a small feeling of comfort when they’re contemplating which book to purchase out of the thousands and thousands available. Maybe repeated words like daughter, wife, salt, etc. etc., give an overwhelmed person standing in front of a new fiction table a place to start? And it goes double for the books with the empty shoes and the headless girls in sundresses on the cover. If you’ve had a good experience with one in the past, it makes sense to try something similar on your next trip.
She’s right, there are an awful lot of headless girls in sundresses on the covers of contemporary fiction, although I hadn’t noticed the empty shoes. What I found fascinating was that she said she’d never had a customer mix up the daughters in these books’ titles. Apparently no one comes into the store looking for The Apothecary’s Daughter when they mean The Apostate’s Daughter. Her colleague Jenn Northington echoed this. “I’ve been wracking my brain,” she said, “and I can’t come up with a single time where I’ve had to do a ‘something something’s daughter’ title search.”
This might sound unremarkable, except that people come into bookstores all the time with only the faintest idea of the title they’re looking for. Stephanie told me she’s heard any number of bizarre variations on Eat, Pray, Love; no one could keep it straight. Titles can be difficult to remember, and I see evidence of this nearly every day, because I follow a lot of booksellers on Twitter. They all follow each other too, and several times a week one of them will send out an appeal for help from the book-minded Twitterverse, as in “Customer just came into the store asking for novel with the word ‘boat’ in the title. Anyone?” or “Customer looking for story collection, don’t know title or author name, but the jacket might be yellow?”
Perhaps, then, there’s something about the rhythm and construction of these titles that aids memory, which means that naming your book The ___’s Daughter is a very sensible thing to do. Perhaps the construction is so familiar that the average reader, having seen dozens or even hundreds of these titles, only really has to remember one word; perhaps at a certain point the mind plugs in The and Daughter automatically.
There are a steady trickle of these titles in every decade, from the early 1900s through the present day, but my extremely unscientific and incomplete data suggests that it’s a growing trend. Just because a given set of data is wildly unscientific and woefully incomplete, does that mean it shouldn’t be graphed? No. It does not. I sorted my list of 530 titles by date and fired up PowerPoint.
Fig. 1: Books Titled The ___’s Daughter, 1990-2011
One can of course go back much further, but previous decades are less dramatic and are also probably even less complete and even more wildly unscientific.
I was curious to see if women were more likely to end up with a The __’s Daughter book than men, either because they chose the title themselves or because their editors chose the title for them. This called for a pie chart.
Fig. 2: Is the author of The ___’s Daughter a man or a woman?
Sometimes it’s impossible to tell. There are authors who use initials instead of given names and maintain minimal web presences.
What I found the most startling, aside from the sheer numbers, was the range of occupations, people, crimes, social classes, mythologies and attributes represented in these titles. I’m familiar with The General’s Daughter, for instance, but The Martian General’s Daughter was new to me. The identities of these daughters’ parents ranged from the relatively mundane (The Taxi Driver’s Daughter) to the wildly unexpected (The Eiffel Tower’s Daughter).
When I looked over the list, certain patterns began to emerge. I started grouping titles into categories. Some categories — academics, servants, cartographers/explorers, and political activists, for instance — turned out to be quite small, just a handful of titles in each. On the other hand, the daughters of artists and artisans— lace-makers, musicians, painters, calligraphers — were particularly well-represented, as were the daughters of people connected to royalty (dukes, kings), and magical and/or supernatural entities (devils, centaurs, demons).
A great many parents represented on the list are politicians (e.g., The Senator’s Daughter, The Governor’s Daughter), or involved in the church (The Bishop’s Daughter, The Vicar’s Daughter). There are in fact several Vicar’s Daughters. Prevailing trends in jacket art suggest that they’re especially fond of low-cut blouses, but that’s neither here nor there.
Then there’s a large group of parents that’s villainous and/or on the wrong side of the law (The Outlaw’s Daughter, The Killer’s Daughter), followed by a group employed as laborers (The Miner’s Daughter), and a group that’s affiliated with the military (The Admiral’s Daughter, The Colonel’s Daughter). A lot of them work with animals (The Rancher’s Daughter), are possibly metaphorical (The Sun’s Daughter), work in medicine (The Emergency Doctor’s Daughter), or are employed in retail (The Merchant’s Daughter).
The retailers are followed by three groups of exactly the same size: parents who do pseudo-sciencey things like astrology and alchemy (I’ll let you guess these titles), parents in law enforcement or the judiciary (The Sheriff’s Daughter, The Judge’s Daughter), and parents who are keepers of either inns or lighthouses.
The last significant group involves parents who, to put the matter as delicately as possible, probably weren’t married when their daughter was conceived (The Harlot’s Daughter, The Mistress’s Daughter).
But in case you skimmed these past few paragraphs, I have a graph for this too.
Fig. 3: Who are her parents?
Longtime Millions reader Laurie has a late entry to our Year in Reading series that includes her nifty system for rating books. We’re only five days into 2007 so I’m sure you’ll indulge us this brief look back at Laurie’s Year in Reading for 2006.To the list I composed last year of ten things that make a book a good read for me you can add #11: Memorable use of language. If you want to know what the numbers below refer to, go to that list. One book stood out from the 80 titles I read this year; it is the only one so far to score positively on all criteria – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (“She read eighty titles?!,” you say. Twenty of those were poetry or kids books of less than 100 pages each. Another 25 titles had less than 200 pages. So over half the books I read were pretty short.)To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11I avoided reading this book for years thinking it would be depressing, but it’s actually full of low-key observational humor, and is simply a beautifully told story about human nature and Southern life. Absolutely the best book I read all year, head and shoulders above everything else.Marley & Me by John Grogan (2005) 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10As of this writing, this nonfiction remembrance of a very stupid but loving dog is still on the NYT bestseller list, over a year after its debut (wish I had a copy from the earliest initial print run). There’s a reason: it’s laugh-out-loud funny and poignant.Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006) 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10This may be fourth or fifth in the Walter picture-book series, but is still pretty amusing, partly due to the bug-eyed dog illustrations. If you’ve ever been trapped on a cruise ship or victimized by a loving but flatulent pet, check this out (and if you haven’t, count yourself lucky).Possum Come A-Knockin’ by N. Van Laan (1990) 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 11Ages 4-7. Another great kids book – rhythmic, romping and humorous picture book adults can also enjoy about a family’s activities as a possum pesters them. Perfect read-aloud material.District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006) 2, 4, 6, 10, 11Heaney’s poetry is so rich in sound, imagery and careful attention to multiple meanings, observations of the human-made world, and of what that world’s tools and constructions say about the toolmakers and builders, that it’s hard not to enjoy, even when the references are obscure to a non-Irish reader. “A Shiver” concisely describes the action of a moment everyone has experienced; “Moyulla” likens a stream to a woman in lively, sensuous language. Like other poems in this short collection, these are told, as Anthony Cuda in his April 16, 2006 Washington Post review says, with “high-pressure linguistic torque.”Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (U.K. 1899; U.S. edition 1991 illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger) 1, 3, 5, 6, 7For ages 10-adult. Dragons start plaguing turn-of-the-century England and two children find out why in this dry-witted, short story-turned-picture-book. The 1991 edited version of the story contains beautiful illustrations by award-winning European artist Lisbeth Zwerger.Tales of Hulan River by Xiao (Hsiao) Hong (China 1942, U.S. 1988) 4, 6, 9, 10Observant, quietly funny and poignant look at small-town Chinese life in the first half of the 20th century, told with great sympathy for women. Hong died in early 1941, I think; this collection of her biographical short stories wasn’t published in English until 1988. Had she lived, she might have produced the great Chinese women’s novel; a story herein of a child bride was like a long warm-up for a novel. Hong is an underrated writer who should join the shelves with Eileen Chang (Love in a Fallen City).The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006) 1, 3, 4, 8For ages 10-adult. I have problems with the crucified toy rabbit scene that occurs about midway through the story. other than that, it was a riveting read. Do not give this to just any ten-year-old though; give it to a kid who won’t be upset by a tearjerker of a tale. Some readers, like Elizabeth Ward of the Washington Post who saw no redemption in the ending and called it “bleak and manipulative,” will dislike the dark tone, so caveat lector.Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David O. Relin (2006) 4, 7, 9, 10Mortenson established (and continues to establish) basic schools in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, built and supported by local communities. His story of time-consuming negotiations and hard work against tremendous obstacles is told by Relin in fine descriptive language. The memoir’s sometimes heavy-handed message, that “the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people” (as said by one Pakistani general) is so broadly ignored by the governments involved in these troubled regions that you don’t wonder that the authors felt compelled to occasionally spell it out.Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006) 1, 3, 7, 11Two cowboy brothers in the 1890s West try to solve a murder using Sherlock Holmes’ techniques. Not high literature, just fun. One of my husband’s favorites this year, too.Other good reads of 2006:A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985) 6, 10, 11Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006) 2, 6, 9The Hummingbird’s Daughter by L.A. Urrea (2005) 1, 3, 6Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998) 1, 3, 7The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006) 2, 9, 11Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami (Japan 2002, U.S. 2005) 4, 9, 10Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006) 1, 3, 7And by category:GrimmestThe Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Distant Star by Roberto Bolano (Spain 1996, U.S. 2004)The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)Hardest to Put DownDeliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (1899)Best HistoryHell’s Broke Loose In Georgia by Scott Walker (2005)Great Use of LanguageA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985)District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006)Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006)The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Not Deep, Mostly Just FunMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin by N. Van Laan (1990)Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006)Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998)Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006)Best Illustrated BookA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (1985)Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit, illus. by Lisbeth Zwerger (1991 U.S. edition)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle, illus. by Audrey Coleman (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin’ by Nancy Van Laan, illus. by George Booth (1990)WorstThe Coldest Winter by Paula Fox (2005) Could be called “the coldest narrative.” Despite the wide range of locales (London, Paris, Warsaw, Barcelona) and people, Fox’s memoir of her experiences as a news stringer in post-WWII Europe is claustrophobic and self-centered.The Man Who Could Fly & Other Stories by Rudolfo Anaya (2006) Someone needs to interpret the Chicano border experience, but not Anaya.Most DisappointingAverno by Louise Gluck (2006)Flaming London by Joe R. Lansdale (2006)One Christmas in Old Tascosa by C. Firman (2006)The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (2006)Correcting the Landscape by M. K. Cole (2006)BoringSnow by Ellen Mattson (Sweden 2001, UK 2005)Five Children & It by E. Nesbit (1902)FunniestMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Best Book Event I Attended in 20061st Annual Decatur Book FestivalFinally, Atlanta has a major, general-interest book festival. Michael Connolly, Edward P. Jones, Nicholas Basbanes, Roy Blount Jr. and many other authors, combined with an antique book fair and outdoor concerts in a cafe-strewn section of Atlanta, made for a good Labor Day weekend.Best Book BargainAn autographed copy of Chapters for the Orthodox by Don Marquis (1934), best known for his “Archy & Mehitabel” series, for $1.00. It’s beat up and missing the dustjacket, but I’d treasure anything signed by the guy who gave the world a typing cockroach.Thanks Laurie!