All the Books We Cannot See: When Book Titles Follow Trends
I talk books with a whole lotta people, and usually, I can navigate discussions without completely embarrassing myself. But not so long ago, while musing about book titles over email, I failed to make the connection that my book companion was talking about ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, you know, that 531-page World War II novel by that multiple award-winning author, Anthony Doerr. That one. That little-known, rarely talked-about book, that oh, let’s see . . . WON THIS YEAR’S PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION.
She had just finished reading it. Me? I must have been tired (was it a late-night email exchange?), or maybe I was distracted (so many books, so little time) . . .
I so utterly failed to realize that what she was talking about was THAT SPECIFIC BOOK that I completely confused and cluttered our conversation, until finally, she realized the synapses weren’t firing in my brain, and very politely indicated that she was referring to Doerr’s novel.
Oh. Duh. (“I totally knew what you were talking about!”) Not.
And frustrating! Because I know this book – heck, it’s sitting on my desk waiting to be read. So why did I flub up the conversation? Was there something wrong with the neurotransmitters in my brain? Did the receptors across my synaptic cleft suddenly decide to take a freaking nap?
Maybe it’s not my fault.
All three of these books released in 2014 within 90 days of each other, all with very similar titles, and very similar covers. Two of them are even about war.
And then there’s this:
And how about this? Two books by (very) different authors, both titled: THE DOUBLE. But thanks to book cover design, one Double, really is double. So together, they read: The Double, The Double, The Double. Which, to my mind, is a triple. Or maybe it’s six. I don’t know.
Here’s two books living lives after life. When placed side by side, you can read them this way: Life after life after life after life.
(Hat tip to Emily Temple’s March 8, 2013 Flavorwire “The Doubles: 10 Pairs of Great Books With the Same Titles” for catching the LIFE AFTER LIFE and THE DOUBLE similarities. Photo credits belong to that article.)
My point is, I don’t think it’s entirely my fault that I momentarily “spaced out” about a book title. Especially when some writers do it to us intentionally.
The way Jojo Moyes does it, AFTER YOU, sounds almost polite. Or maybe not, if you put both of her titles into dialogue.
“No, me before you.”
So I’m not crazy. Am I? The trouble with some book titles, especially when done to chase a trend, is that they create a crowded marketplace filled not with: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, but all the BOOKS we cannot see.
But don’t take my word for it. Almost two years ago (so the list is still growing), Vulture.com published “The Book Title with 91 Imitators” based on an article that originally appeared in the February 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine. The article chronicles the mind-blowing flood of books with the word GIRL in the title. The list is astonishing. Nearly 100 ‘girl’ titles and counting.
Here’s a sample:
- THE GIRL WHO COULD FLY by Victoria Forester
- THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY by Heidi W. Durrow
- Here’s another: THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, this time, by Simon Mawer
- How about: THE GIRL WHO FELL TO EARTH by Sophia Al-Maria
I’m thinking this girl should find another hobby. She’s clearly not good at flying.
Now, don’t get me wrong. They look like fabulous books. My apologies to the writers who are experiencing their third incarnation of the same point – first in New York Magazine, then in Vulture and now on my book blog. But doesn’t it make you wonder what Stieg Larsson would say about all of this? He’s probably spinning in his grave because he was the boy who was the first GIRL. But then, wait a minute. He’s part of the problem . . .
Or, maybe, Stieg’s not the problem. He was simply the first to brand it.
Stieg was Swedish. The above titles were chosen for the English-language market. The original title for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTO is: Män som hatar kvinnor, “Men Who Hate Women.”
Too bad for the men who hate women. The word GIRL sure sells a lot of books!
Just ask JoJo. That girl sells a whole lotta books. But with all this AFTER YOU and ME BEFORE YOU going around, it seems someone got left behind . . .
Great news! I found her. She’s at the Barnes & Noble.
Many thanks to the astute readers of this blog post who are leaving great comments in my comment section, causing me to return to this post to add:
David Benoit at the The Wall Street Journal chimed in on this topic back in November (11/16/15). Here’s his spin on the matter: Loved the Novel About a Girl on a Train? You May Have Read the Wrong Book: Thrillers with similiar names cause some confusion; ‘THIS is not that book!’
Thanks for bringing the WSJ article to my attention, Wendy Janes. And thank you, Pauline Wiles, for pointing us to this August 27, 2015 BookBub article by Hannah Reynolds: What Are the Most Popular Title Trends in Your Genre? Reynolds created word clouds for titles in each genre. Interesting to note, the words ‘love,’ ‘bound,’ and ‘cowboy’ all feature prominently in the erotica genre. I feel bad for the cowboy taxed with servicing an entire genre. With all of these girls on the bookshelves, he’s bound to get tired.
Although, he best stay clear of this one . . .
I suspect once we’ve exhausted THE GIRL ON . . . THE GIRL WITH . . . and THE GIRL WHO . . . titles, we’ll eventually declare that title structure to be over, and done with. Or, gone, so to speak.
Or maybe we’ll simply toss that ‘girl’ toward the back end of the title, rather than the front, as seen in ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL by Jess Andrews.
Now that [BLANK] and [BLANK] and the [BLANK BLANK] book I just mentioned has been made into a motion picture, even the moviegoers – who may not be aware of the book – will become attuned to that type of grammatical construction for popular titles.
Dedicated followers of title trends, take note: the [BLANK] and [BLANK] and the [BLANK BLANK] title construction, and the [BLANK] and [BLANK] and [BLANK] and [BLANK] construction may soon be gracing your bookshelves on a slew of new books.
I thought it looked fresh when I reviewed Emma Hooper’s ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES. Although, it’s sometimes hard to remember which name comes first. Is it James? Or Otto? No, wait. It’s Etta. Etta comes first. (Great book, by the way.)
Unfortunately for me, who sometimes lapses into moments of faulty synapses over all the books I (apparently) cannot see — like the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize-winning ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE — I sure hope the coming year brings all the right books, IN ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. So I can see them. Otherwise, I’m going to need new glasses.
Another Update to this Post:
This update added February 22, 2016 with gratitude given to trendsetting author Francine LaSala who, in 2012, titled one of her books The Girl, the Gold Tooth & Everything long before using the word ‘girl’ in a title was popular. Francine tipped me off to this February 22, 2016 NPR discussion: The ‘Girl’ In The Title: More Than A Marketing Trend. Click to read the article OR listen to this seven minute Morning Edition.