Essays and Notable Articles

The ___’s Daughter

By posted at 6:00 am on March 28, 2012 87

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.”

covercovercoverBut 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.

covercoverShe’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.

covercoverWhat 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.

covercovercoverThen 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?

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87 Responses to “The ___’s Daughter”

  1. Emily Lloyd
    at 7:54 am on April 5, 2012

    Indeed! I write a webcomic set in a public library & did a strip on this phenomenon a while back:

    When I read that a book called “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter” was coming out, I thought someone was spoofing the trend. Nope. Serious book.

  2. Constance X
    at 8:15 am on April 5, 2012

    I thought you’d say something about [expectations of circumstance: Class, family, and gender] versus [character: Personal virtues and failings]. So, I was disappointed in that, but I liked the bar graph.

  3. Fish
    at 8:55 am on April 5, 2012

    Some interesting suggestions (feel free to add yours) under the hashtag #theblanksdaughter

  4. RA
    at 9:45 am on April 5, 2012

    Oh, my word, I love this SO much. I have wondered the same thing! And I love graphs, so basically, this is heaven.

  5. Uintah
    at 10:52 am on April 5, 2012

    A similar thing happens with movie titles: “[Insert verb here]-ing So-and-So” ,
    e.g. Drowning Mona, Saving Private Ryan, Saving Silverman, Driving Miss Daisy, Finding Nebo. Someone asked why this trend in a entry, but responders had no real answer. One, however, brought up another title pattern: The ___ing of the Shrew. I guess titling is an ancient and venerable problem…

  6. Uintah
    at 10:54 am on April 5, 2012

    (NOT FOR PUBLISHING) Just want to be notified of future posts. SUCH an interesting blog & followup!

  7. She
    at 11:54 am on April 5, 2012

    I eagerly read this, hoping it would be about a topic that’s annoyed me for years but, oddly, there wasn’t a mention of it in the whole piece. I’m talking about the sexism of this “The Blank’s Daughter” title pattern. My impression is that the vast majority of the Blank in these titles is the protagonist’s father, not mother. As in, identifying a female main character in terms of her relationship to a man, in this case her father. I said it’s my impression because I haven’t done the searching, cutting, pasting, counting. This writer did, yet didn’t bother to look at, or at least write about, this issue, which to my mind is the only one that actually matters. Why are publishers titling books about female main characters in terms of those characters’ fathers? A connected issue that’s also not touched on in this piece is whether there’s any parallel pattern of books titled “The Blank’s Son.” I don’t think so, but again, I haven’t done the research. I wish the writer had. If not, if, as I suspect, there is no trend toward “The Blank’s Son” titles, that too speaks volumes about the sexism of the publishing industry. Male protagonists stand on their own, are interesting in their own right, while females must be identified in relation to their fathers.

  8. Sono la figlia di… «
    at 12:35 pm on April 5, 2012

    […] The ___’s Daughter By EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL posted at 6:00 am on March 28, 2012 56 […]

  9. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 12:54 pm on April 5, 2012

    It wasn’t that I couldn’t be bothered, “She”, it was that I’d already devoted so many dozens of hours to this project that I was in danger of falling behind on everything else (I have a day job, multiple deadlines on multiple projects, a novel coming out in four weeks, another novel in the works, etc.) and the piece was already running long.

    While to your mind the feminist angle is the only angle that matters, that isn’t really the piece I was interested in writing. I was more interested in starting the conversation about the prevalence of this title construction than doing an exhaustive analysis of the potential sexism behind it. Analyzing all of these books to see which percentage of titles refer to the mother and which to the father (and why stop with these books, since I did after all only make it to page 88 of 200 Goodreads search results?) and conducting a parallel search for “The ___’s Son” would have taken months of time that I simply don’t have at my disposal.

    But if this is something you’re interested in researching further and writing about, I’d be happy to email you my Excel spreadsheet. You’ll find my email address in the About section on this site.

  10. Katie
    at 6:00 pm on April 5, 2012

    I’m actually not convinced that this is anti-feminism at work here. A LOT of these books are historical fiction, and through much of history, the women who play protagonists in these novels didn’t have careers or titles of their own. They are most simply introduced to the reader as someone’s wife or someone’s daughter. Also, this kind of title implies a scenario with great economy. THE MURDERER’s DAUGHTERS: who did their father/mother kill? How have they been changed by the crime? For the commonality of the structure, it is evocative.

  11. Charlotte
    at 4:59 am on April 6, 2012

    Oh dear. I’ve been titling my work in progress “The Devil’s Daughter.” Perhaps I ought to rethink it.

    To be clear, the title was not borne out of any desire to yoke my protagonist to her father’s accomplishments (he has none) or define her through her relationship to a male figure (an idea she would bristle at.) Quite the opposite. In late-Georgian slang, a “devil’s daughter” was a brash, headstrong, often aggressive woman – very similar to “hoyden.” Add that to the fact that it’s a paranormal novel in which it’s darkly hinted that the protagonist’s parents were involved in occult activity around the time of her conception and birth…and, well, I really couldn’t resist.

  12. storysky
    at 1:56 pm on April 7, 2012

    When I see a cover or title that seems familiar, I get the feeling that it’s a direct reference to something in the well-read person’s train of thought — it seems complex and intelligent, something I don’t understand. I hadn’t thought of it before as a sales tactic. Thank you so much for writing about your research!

    This discussion of daughters makes me think of the book covers with the backs of women’s necks because of the beautiful, scary vulnerability they both suggest.

    A book title depends on people’s first associations with the few words it includes. I realized that I see myself mostly as a sister. To me, “sister” suggests support, comparison, competition, mirroring. This article made me wonder how I feel if I look at myself as the computer programmer’s daughter. It doesn’t seem to me that a lot of people today see themselves first and foremost as a ___’s daughter or a ___’s son, so maybe it’s appealing because it’s an interesting perspective to think about.

    I don’t think I’ve read any daughter books, but they seem to suggest exciting plots, not necessarily because of the occupation of the parent but more because of the fact that there’s a daughter involved. Involving a daughter seems to suggest a clean slate (like the back of neck covers or the tender skin under a blister), the fear or hope that the parent’s occupation or behaviors will impact the daughter, the possibility that the daughter will become strong and rise up or outdo or be ruined by her parent. Sounds like an exciting plot. If the story is not about the daughter, maybe the title asks the reader to consider resonation of the parent’s actions in a fuller way — I guess I’m trying to figure out some reasons that people might be drawn to titling their books this way since so many people have made this choice.

    Thanks for the fun article and discussion!

  13. Daniel Ford
    at 7:24 am on April 8, 2012

    The Officer’s Daughter is an awfully good novel about the eponymous Daughter’s tribulations following the German/Russian invasion of Poland in 1939. She is sent into the Gulag and escapes with the remnants of the Polish army to Persia, where she marries a Tehran doctor. The book is entirely about the Daughter; The Officer is only a shadowy figure at the beginning of the book, and a wrecked old man when she visits communist Warsaw in her furs after the War. So if the title be deceptive in this case, it’s only that it suggests more about the Officer than the Daughter. The author is Zina Rohan. I bought my copy second-hand, so I think it’s out of print. Blue skies! — Dan Ford

  14. Janet MacLeod Trotter
    at 3:37 pm on April 9, 2012

    Fascinating! I recently re-edited my historical saga THE TEA PLANTER’S LASS as an ebook – and changed her from a LASS into a DAUGHTER! I had a vague feeling it might be a more universal title, so it’s really interesting to read of your research. I had no idea there were so many daughters around. Would a TEA PLANTER’S DAUGHTER swell the modest ranks of ‘retail’ daughters, I wonder? Or can she kick-start a ‘women in business’ grouping?!
    Thanks for an entertaining article.

  15. [title trend alert] 'Orphan' is the new 'Wife' - PageViews
    at 12:44 pm on May 14, 2012

    […] May 14 2012, 12:08 PM by Eugenia Williamson  Remember when every novel was called The ______________'s Wife or The ___________'s Daughter? Well, now it's orphans. A hardcover copy of The […]

  16. Daniel Ford
    at 7:29 am on May 15, 2012

    It’s now official: I have a cover design for Poland’s Daughter, though the book is still a ways from publication. I have however published three chapters as 99-cent downloads for Amazon’s Kindle reader.

  17. 15 site-uri literare (şi mai puţin literare) care merită urmărite « Bookaholic
    at 6:23 am on May 30, 2012

    […] Mai departe, urmează The Millions, unul dintre site-urile noastre preferate, care, pe lângă faptul că ne atrage atenţia asupra altor materiale faine postate prin toate colţurile internetului – deci de acolo ai toate şansele să migrezi spre alte locuri interesante – publică deseori eseuri extrem de bine scrise, pe tot felul de teme la care puţini dintre noi ne-am gândi, de la criza romanului de dragoste al timpurilor moderne, până la titluri care se construiesc pe sintagma “fiica cuiva“. […]

  18. Stacy Whitman
    at 2:12 pm on June 11, 2012

    Actually, Paul Atreides is wrong. The primary spelling of “to rack one’s brains” in the dictionary is without the w, and if you look up the etymology of the word, it actually *does* connect to the medieval torture device:

    wrack (n.)
    late 14c., “wrecked ship,” probably from M.Du. wrak “wreck,” cognate with O.E. wræc “misery, punishment,” and wrecan “to punish, drive out” (see wreak). The meaning “damage, disaster, destruction” (in wrack and ruin) is from c.1400, from the O.E. word. Sense of “seaweed, etc., cast up on shore” is recorded from 1510s. The verb meaning “to ruin or wreck” (originally of ships) is recorded from 1560s, from earlier intrans. sense “to be shipwrecked” (late 15c.). Often confused in this sense since 16c. with rack (1) in the verb sense of “to torture on the rack;” to wrack one’s brains is thus erroneous.


  19. Links Galore « Annie Cardi
    at 3:21 pm on June 13, 2012

    […] My biggest title pet peeve. […]

  20. A game for book snobs | Peachleaves
    at 3:09 pm on September 23, 2012

    […] awhile ago on Twitter, I linked to an article that satisfyingly applied charts and graphs to my pet peeve of book titling, “The […]

  21. mjp
    at 12:55 pm on November 14, 2012

    and one more for the record: The Abortionist’s Daughter.

  22. Winter Book Challenge « Just go ahead and…
    at 12:54 pm on December 5, 2012

    […] and Canada, read a book that takes place in the country you were born. 15: Read a book titled The _______’s Daughter or The _______’s Wife. 15:  Read a book that was originally written in a language other […]

  23. January Winter Book Challenge Update « Just go ahead and…
    at 2:22 pm on January 1, 2013

    […] points: Read a book titled The _______‘s Daughter or The _______’s Wife. […]

  24. Review: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke | Bunbury in the Stacks Review: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke | One has the right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that. ~ Osc
    at 6:01 am on January 21, 2013

    […] any of you read this article on The Millions last year, you’ll know that I can’t be the only one getting a little […]

  25. Flying in his shadow: a review of The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin | editorialeyes
    at 10:42 pm on February 12, 2013

    […] like “The X’s Wife” or “The X’s Daughter” (take a look at this great article on The Millions). These titles tend to irritate me a bit, as they define the main female character […]

  26. Why I Hate “The X’s Wife/Daughter” Titles | Book.Blog.Bake.
    at 2:55 pm on February 27, 2013

    […] to me was that out of all the “X’s Relation Here”, Daughter was the most popular. This post also has a few more interesting statistics on the subject. I find it interesting that […]

  27. A game for book snobs – Scribal Tattoo
    at 3:00 pm on May 22, 2013

    […] awhile ago on Twitter, I linked to an article that satisfyingly applied charts and graphs to my pet peeve of book titling, “The ___’s […]

  28. The X’s Daughter |
    at 9:41 pm on August 9, 2013

    […] this post by Emily St. John Mandel didn’t exist when I posted the below, but is a much better analysis […]

  29. Sean Young Sets Sights on 'Blade Runner' Prequel from Perch Within 'Jug Face' | Word and Film
    at 10:49 am on August 12, 2013

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  30. Nate
    at 12:23 pm on September 12, 2013

    It seems like you’ve overlooked something in #1… How many book titles have the format “The _______’s Son” or “The ________’s Husband”? It is probably safe to assume that not nearly as many of those exist, but I feel that your point wouldn’t really be complete without at least looking into it. It might be as simple as just running a similar search… If the male version of that search turns up only 20 pages of results, there’s your answer.

  31. Julia
    at 12:55 pm on February 5, 2014

    Have you considered sharing the Excel spreadsheet you created? I’d be very curious to see all of the many title variations!

  32. The Nose Picker’s Daughter-Wife | amandabales
    at 9:48 am on August 5, 2014

    […] years ago, Emily St. John Mandell wrote a much better piece than mine for The Millions that focused specifically on the “daughter” titles. It includes […]

  33. Barbara Lamar
    at 10:38 am on October 31, 2014

    Thank you for the fun article, Emily. I wonder if the trend has abated by now, two years later … This is for She, if She is still around … the second thing I thought of while scrolling thru the comments was the story of Jephtha the Gileadite’s Daughter in the Book of Judges in the Torah. I believe you’re right about the sexist origins of The ___________’s Daughter. The story of The Gileadite’s Daughter ends like this: “From year to year the daughter of Israel went to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in a year.” This woman is remembered by an annual 4-day event, yet she has no name.

  34. Daughter novels | Making Book
    at 2:43 pm on May 13, 2015

    […] The Millions post which discloses this repetitive state of affairs dates from 2012, so who knows what may have happened since then. Strangely I cannot recall ever seeing or reading a book with a title in this pattern, though I seem to remember a book called The Handmaid’s Daughter. I guess I may have seen that one, or at least a review of it. But of course the academic world in which most of my publishing career was spent would be unlikely to come up with titles like this. […]

  35. Survival is insufficient – Emily St John Mandel at the Auckland Writers Festival – Christchurch City Libraries Blog
    at 6:52 pm on May 15, 2015

    […] books, and writes for The Millions (I can particularly recommend her essay on book titles “The ___’s Daughter“, because things like trends in book titles excite me. Also there are […]

  36. P.M. Steffen
    at 5:07 pm on May 24, 2015

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, but was disappointed to see my own book go unmentioned (The Profiler’s Daughter). I picked the title after watching the movie Wonderboys, wherein the protagonist has secured a teaching position based on his breakout novel, The ____ ‘s Daughter (sorry, can’t remember!). When I was trying to come up with a title for my manuscript, The Profiler’s Daughter was the only title my daughter liked. So I went with it. And I can’t help noticing that many of the titles you mention were published in 2012, as was mine. Also, that most were highly rated. Can’t argue with that.

  37. The Speech Pathologist's Son
    at 10:07 pm on August 14, 2015

    I’m currently reading “The Weedkiller’s Daughter” by Harriette Simpson Arnow, published in 1969. That’s seems to be a pretty early example based on the titles mentioned here. It is the first and I hope last “The ___’s Daughter” book I ever read. Those titles have always stood out to me and seemed annoying.

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