It’s no secret from anyone that I’m a fairly liberal person and a feminist; I have very strong opinions on many womens issues. However, I don’t like to stand on a soapbox and shout. Prickly, condescending griping is never going to convince people your opinions are right, and will probably push them further from the direction you want them to go.
But there’s this thing. And the more I see it, the more it bothers me. And so, since I’m still firmly in the middle of the next novel I’d like to review, I figure it’s time for a rant, to get things off my chest.
Have you ever noticed how many titles there are out there defining a female (supposedly main) character in terms of the identity of her parent or her husband? The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Aviator’s Wife. The Shoemaker’s Wife. The Hangman’s Daughter. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The Witch’s Daughter. This is just a small sampling of what can be found in the first few pages of relatively simple Amazon searches. These types of titles are all over the place. Walk through a bookstore and I’m sure you can find a dozen at a shot.
I can think of only one recent male-centered title that follows this form, The Orphan Master’s Son, and Amazon doesn’t reveal many more. Sure, there are titles featuring husbands and sons, but rarely do they contain that oh so sneaky possessive noun, rarely are these male titular characters defined by their relationship to someone else.
Look. I know there are a lot of factors that go into titling a book. Authors, editors, and publicists want to find something memorable, something that pops, that will appeal to casual browsers looking at table displays and sound good on talk shows and in review columns. There is something incredibly compelling about such titles, an air of mystery that immediately makes you want to know who these characters are. But just as gendered cover designs and exploitative character poses have been heavily discussed and debated in book circles recently, I think this an issue worthy of attention.
When I see a title like The Aviator’s Wife, to choose a completely random example, the first thing I think is that, no matter how interesting the wife, no matter even if she gets to narrate her own story, she will probably never be as interesting as the aviator himself. In those three words, the very first impression readers get of her, the character is completely defined, and it is only in relation to someone else.
To be fair, I haven’t read any of the books I’ve mentioned, except for The Time Traveler’s Wife (which happens to be one of my most hated reads of all time, so perhaps that has biased me to the whole convention). I can’t say whether specific protagonists are flat or well-rounded, whether the titles reflect something meaningful about the books or are just slapped on for good marketing buzz. But the whole trend concerns me.
Deliberately or not, what these types of titles say to readers, very often the women readers they are specifically marketed to, is that that the characters meant to resonate with them have little or no worth outside of who their spouse is, who their lover is, what their father does or who their mother was. That without those titular relationships, these characters would literally have no other reason to exist, no other story worth telling.
Look at it another way. Published today, Anna Karenina might have ended up The Government Official’s Wife or The Count’s Mistress; To Kill a Mockingbird could be The Small-Town Lawyer’s Daughter. I’d certainly rather read Jane Eyre than Mr. Rochester’s Governess.
There’s no one solution to this issue. For some books, these types of titles may be the only appropriate or interesting options available. But publishers, authors, and yes, readers too, need to be more conscious of the messages being sent by the ways books are packaged and marketed. Instead of turning a blind eye and pretending that we live in a perfect, egalitarian world without gender or racial disparity, these issues should continue to inspire discussion and debate. This will make better readers of us all.