Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Trendsetter's Daughter

Along with the trend of headless women covers, another trend--this one concerning titles--has overtaken historical fiction. Have you noticed the growing number of titles that follow the pattern "Somebody's Daughter"? To name only a few:

The Bonesetter's Daughter (A. Tan, 2003)
The Alchemist's Daughter (K. McMahon, 2006)
The Tailor's Daughter (J. Graham, 2007)
The Pirate's Daughter (M. Cezair-Thompson, 2008)
The Heretic's Daughter (K. Kent, 2008)
The Virgin Queen's Daughter (E. Chase, 2008)

The pattern may vary. Sometimes the parent's name appears, as in Rashi's Daughters (M. Anton, 2007); other times the syntax is reversed, as in Daughter of York (A.E. Smith, 2008) and Daughter of Fortune (I. Allende, 2006). What is it about Daughter titles that make them such a popular device for naming historical fiction? 

The first reason has to do with marketing. Like headless women covers, a Daughter title signals to the bookstore browser that the book is first of all women's fiction and most likely an historical novel. (Daughter titles do appear on books from other genres, such as the contemporary novel The Memory Keeper's Daughter (K. Edwards, 2006) and the memoir The Mistress's Daughter (A. Homes, 2008), but the majority of Daughter titles grace historical fiction.) The title announces that the main character of the novel is a woman and that the story is, to a great degree, hers. It is the story of her plight, of her struggle to define herself within, or escape from, her circumstances.

This is the second reason Daughter titles work so well for historical fiction. Women, in the past, were defined by their dependent roles as daughter and wife. In a sense, they had no need of first names, at least in a social context. Townsfolk could refer to "Frank the baker's wife" or "Otto the cobbler's daughter" and everyone knew whom they were talking about. Not only were the women defined by their familial roles, but the socio-economic position of their husband's or father's occupation delineated their existence. If you look carefully, the daughter in the titles above is the daughter of a practitioner of a specific trade or activity, be it alchemy, bonesetting, or heresy. Each trade comes with its particular status and set of duties and expectations. The daughter in question finds herself defined by the givens of her father's occupation and must either come to terms with these givens or seek to recreate herself by rebelling against them. (This dynamic works even when the parent in the title is the mother, as in The Heretic's Daughter and The Virgin Queen's Daughter: the nameless daughter here struggles under the double onus of social status and her mother's anonymity.) The use of the possessive case objectifies the daughter: she is a possession, an extension of the father, useful for her knowledge of the trade, a mere cog in the family business. Definitely not an individual in her own right--that development is what unfolds on the three hundred pages between the covers. 

Daughter titles, then, are significant markers of genre that, although static (they include no verb) set up the fundamental parameters of the book. Three simple words sketch the novel's principal character, primary setting and underlying conflict. Economy of scale at its best. They sound catchy, too.

Seeing the popularity of such titles, I used to jokingly refer to The Measure of Silence as The Draper's Daughter (my husband used to call it Death by Poem, but we won't go there). Ironically, one of the titles I'm considering for Book 2 has daughter in it. I found a quotation about art that captures the theme of the book perfectly; I'd love to feature it on the first page and borrow part of it as the title, but I'm hesitant to jump on the Daughter bandwagon. What do you think? I could always lop off a syllable or two to mirror the figure on the cover. 

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yep, I too have a Daughter book on my book shelf "Galileo's"! But I have to say, the title, not just catchy, us ladies are all somebody's daughter and that relationship between father/daughter is a unique one. Especially after watching my husband and daughter, very different than my relationship with her and even in this day and age, she may very well still be defined by what and who her daddy is, at least initially, til she makes a mark of her own :) It's great to hear the gears oiled and clicking back into action Juliannne!!! Yea! Renee

Julianne Douglas said...

Good point, Renee, I subsumed the whole emotional aspect of the father-daughter relationshipinto the economic one. I wonder why, then, books about fathers and daughters are so popular these days? Are people looking for something in the hf relationships that they don't find in their own? Is it the opposite--are they comparing modern f-d relationships favorably to the ones of the past?

There is so much meat to the f-d relationship, especially how the daughter responds to the power represented by the father. How does love fit into this structure, especially in the more formal past? Can the daughter ever in any way become the father's equal? Fiction deals with conflict, and there's certainly enough in the father-daughter relationship to fuel a novel!

Sheramy said...

Really interesting post and comments: I hadn't noticed all the 'daughters' lately, but you're right!!

The idea that people look for something in hf relationships that they do not have frightens me. Because that would mean I secretly long for an enormously creative bipolar painter who'll show up on my doorstep one day with his ear. ;-)

Sheramy

Catherine Delors said...

My favorite title, hands down, is "The Virgin Queen's Daughter." Are we talking Immaculate Conception here?

Seriously, "Mistress of the Revolution" was almost called "Daughter of the Revolution" but I thought it could induce confusion with the DARs.

Sarah said...

Julianne, those are very astute observations! I've noticed the prevalence of daughters in HF titles lately as well, and can add a few others from the past two years (The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter/Dennis, The Tsarina's Daughter/Erickson, The King's Daughter/Worth, The Communist's Daughter/Bock, The Gravedigger's Daughter/Oates... you get the idea :)

Even titles such as The Other Boleyn Girl have a similar effect. It speaks of gender, a family relationship, an underlying conflict/rivalry, and a mystery (which one is she?).

The title The Virgin Queen's Daughter makes me feel like the trend is getting out of control, as there are too many obvious buzzwords in it. It reminds me of the overblown titles found in Harlequin Presents novels (see link for a sampling, if you want to be amused) and makes me wonder if that title was the author's choice.

Julianne Douglas said...

Catherine and Sarah,

I agree, The Virgin Queen's Daughter is over the top as a title. It does raise an intriguing question to snag the reader, but following so many other Daughter titles, it just makes you want to say "Oh, pluh-eez."

I notice Queen is getting trendy in titles, too, but since publishers are heavy into "marquee names" for hf, I suppose that's to be expected.

Maybe I should try a new angle and write a book about somebody's aunt. I've got it: Aunt of the Queen's Bastard Daughter. At least it will make browsers pause a moment to try to figure out the relationship...