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The Gone Girl With The Dragon Tattoo On The Train

There was a time a few years back when it seemed to me that about every third book I encountered was called “The X’s Daughter,” with X standing in for just about any occupation, title, rank and pejorative imaginable. Bookshelf upon bookshelf was filled with the daughters of generals, cartographers, lacemakers, lighthouse keepers, veterinarians, preachers and miscreants.

More recently, we seem to have entered the age of the girls. Paula Hawkins’s debut, “The Girl on the Train,” was published last year and is still everywhere: Nielsen BookScan reports 2.7 million copies have been sold in the U.S. — the actual number is undoubtedly much higher, because that number doesn’t capture eBook sales — and box-office receipts for the film adaptation reached nearly $25 million in its opening weekend. Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” was equally ubiquitous a couple of years back. This summer belonged to “The Girls,” Emma Cline’s acclaimed debut novel, still prominently displayed in every bookstore I enter. Carl Hiaasen’s “Razor Girl” recently hit The New York Times bestseller list.

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Who are these girls? Why are there so many of them? Books with “girl” in the titles make up a tiny fraction of all the books published in a given year, but they appear again and again on the bestseller lists. Other people have written about this trend, often with great eloquence, but none of them were backed by a data set. Using the database at Goodreads, the popular social networking website for readers, we set out to change that. A number of patterns emerged in our analysis: The “girl” in the title is much more likely to be a woman than an actual girl, and the author of the book is more likely to be a woman. But if a book with “girl” in the title was written by a man, the girl is significantly more likely to end up dead.

Why are there so many of these books? Well, because publishing is an industry ruled by mystery and chance. If anyone knew the magic formula by which a book sells a million copies, they’d all sell a million copies.

It’s not that there’s no data — of course there is. As a Penguin Random House author, I can log into a portal that delivers real-time sales data on all of my titles, complete with an addictive selection of interactive charts. But what I don’t really know is why any given novel of mine sold the number of copies it did. I can point to moments of good fortune in the life of the book, but then, so can other authors whose books sold either far more or far fewer copies than mine did. Books take off, or they don’t; they explode, or there’s a slow burn, or there’s a failure to ignite.

Because there is a certain element of mystery to the whole thing, when a book does explode, there’s a natural tendency to try to copy elements of its success. “It always seems that when there is a mega-sales hit in publishing,” said a New York City literary agent who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, “everyone scrambles to ride the coattails of that success. Even after all these years in the business, I continue to be surprised at just how long and how widely publishers will persist in those attempts. I guess it’s hard to blame them.”

People I spoke with in the publishing industry theorized that the Girl phenomenon started with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series — “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” That had been my assumption, too, but it appears the share of books that had “girl” in the title had already been rising before the first Millennium novel was published in the U.S. in 2008. (It was published in Sweden under a different title in 2005.) This year is shaping up to be the biggest year for ‘girls’ in fiction in decades, with nearly 1 percent of fiction titles featuring the word ‘girl’ in the title, according to Goodreads’ analysis.

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These books seem to build on each other, but it’s worth noting that of course not all books are titled in an effort to replicate past books’ success. The author Heidi Durrow told me that in the case of her 2010 debut novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” her title was a line in the book. “I like that it immediately suggests a mystery and puts the young adult narrator at the center of the story,” she said, “even though the book is told from many character’s perspectives.” Another author, Sarah McCarry, told me that her novel “About a Girl” was titled as such because “it is literally about a girl, but more pertinently it’s the title of a Nirvana song.”

Durrow and McCarry are two fortunate novelists who got the titles they wanted for their books; not everyone’s so lucky. Generally speaking, titles are like book covers; the author is invited to be a part of the selection process, but neither is ultimately the writer’s decision. (The photographer and writer Deborah Copaken wrote a fairly chilling essay about this for The Nation a few years back. Her memoir of her career as a war photographer was titled “Shutterbabe” against her wishes.) Writers and publishers usually don’t go on the record when there’s been a disagreement, for the same reason that that New York City agent requested anonymity: Publishing’s a small world, and it takes a certain recklessness to alienate a business partner.

But people in publishing will sometimes talk candidly when you agree to keep them anonymous, so here’s that New York City agent again: “I recently surveyed the Barnes & Noble bestseller shelves,” the agent wrote in an email, “and saw ‘The Woman in Cabin 10’ and thought ‘We’ve finally graduated. They are allowed to be women again. Hallelujah.’”

I was curious about more than just how often “girl” books appeared; I wanted to understand who was writing these books, and the fate of the “girl” in the title. With the help of research assistants, I looked at the 2,000 or so most popular books1 with “girl” or “girls” in the title on Goodreads. I filtered out books with 250 or fewer ratings, as a means of getting the dataset down to a manageable size, and then filtered out books for children and young adults.2 I was left with 810 books, including all the heavy hitters we’d expect. It made for a nice representative sample of “girl” titles.

As one might suspect, the authors of these books were, most of them, formerly girls themselves.

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The identity of the authors is relatively straightforward, but, well, who are all these girls? The agent I spoke with told me that he’d wondered if “girl” was even an accurate descriptor: “Were all of those ‘girls’ in the titles actually girls — or were the characters really women?”

I actually have this data,3 so please, allow me:

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“And I thought women hated being called girls,” the agent continued. “Are we regressing?”

I don’t think we’re regressing. I think it’s just that publishers understandably want to sell as many books as possible, and given the wild success of books like “Gone Girl” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they think putting “girl” in the title might help. But the agent’s comment about “The Woman in Cabin 10” made me think of a colleague of mine at The Millions, Edan Lepucki, who has a novel coming out next year titled “Woman No. 17.” She’s another fortunate author who got the title she wanted. “I have thought about the girl/woman dichotomy,” she told me in an email, “and it does mean something that the book isn’t called ‘Girl No. 17.’ It just could not be named that! It sounds so wrong, inaccurate and silly.”

Lepucki’s title character is 41 at the beginning of the book, but the data — and, well, personal experience — suggest that age is no impediment to calling someone a girl. I asked my editor at Knopf, Jennifer Jackson, if she had any thoughts on the trend. “Maybe ‘girl’ hints at a vulnerability that raises the stakes,” Jackson suggested, “or an inevitable growing up in a way that promises story?”

It’s an interesting idea. What does happen to the girls in these stories? With the help of a research assistant, I sorted the titles based on the status of the girl in the title, or insofar as we could figure out the status of the girl based on the book’s Goodreads description. The good news is, the girl’s usually all right:

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However, something interesting and faintly troubling happens when you separate the titles by author gender and run the same analysis:

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It’s important to note what the data does and does not show. It wouldn’t be fair to extrapolate from this that women and girls are more likely to be dead or missing across all books written by men; only that they’re more likely to be dead or missing in books by men with “girl” in the title.

I can’t think of any mitigating factor that fully explains this. Sure, women may be more likely to write memoirs with the word “girl” in the title, and we can safely assume a near-100 percent chance that the girl in the title survived to tell the story, but there are too few memoirs in this list — about a dozen, out of hundreds of titles by women — to skew the data in any significant way. The same goes for guidebooks (e.g., “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide To Finding Her Inner French Girl,” which is presumably for women who don’t share my distaste for being called girls.) Perhaps, when you looked at the above charts, the thought crossed your mind that it’s just that women are writing books that are generally less dark, to which I can only reply that you might consider reading more Denise Mina and Gillian Flynn. The explanation for the divergence between the fates of the titular girls could be as simple as women perhaps being more likely to write books with female protagonists. Book protagonists often appear in the book’s title — think of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, for instance — and killing off the protagonist is a relatively unusual authorial choice.

All trends pass, in publishing and elsewhere. The “girl” books, though, will be with us for at least a little while longer. I had dinner recently with Michael Link, a bookseller at Joseph-Beth in Cincinnati. When I told him about this project, he laughed and said that he and his colleagues had joked about imposing a moratorium on books with “girl” in the title. A week later, he sent me an email: “There are five different galleys on the shelf with ‘girl’ in the title pubbing this fall.”

Becca Schuh and Kshitij Aranke provided research assistance.

Footnotes

  1. As determined by Goodreads’ search algorithm. The Data set included fiction and nonfiction books.
  2. A research assistant did this by hand.
  3. We looked at the Goodreads description of each book to determine whether the “girl” in the title was actually a girl (which we defined as 19 years old or younger) or a woman (20 or older). In books that fell in the “Indeterminate” category, either the title didn’t refer to a specific person (e.g., Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women”) or, in one notable case, the title referred to a shapeshifter who was sometimes a girl and sometimes a woman, which is the kind of thing one has to contend with when trying to quantify fiction.

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently “Station Eleven,” which was a finalist for a National Book Award. She lives in New York City.

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