The Girl in the Bayou

The other day, I heard a short snippet of a story on NPR about books with “Girl” in the title — books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train.

“I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the word girl in their title,” says [crime novelist Megan] Abbott. “It’s not necessarily an issue with the content of the book itself, but there’s this sort of shorthand that if it has ‘girl’ in the title, then I know what to expect.”

That calculus seems to be at work with a book that arrived recently at NPR’s offices: Girl in the Dark, by Marion Pauw, described by its publisher as “in the vein of blockbuster thrillers such as The Girl on the Train and The Good Girl,” by Mary Kubica.

Of course, this got me thinking about titles in general. Stieg Larsson’s entire Lisbeth Salander series, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and continuing posthumously with the The Girl in the Spider’s Web, written on commission by David Lagercrantz. Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. The new Brian K. Vaughan comic book series I’ve fallen in love with, Paper Girls. The recent Girl In The Dark by Marion Pauw, and the forthcoming Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman. (Those last two, the former out last week and the latter coming in May, are from the same publisher, HarperCollins.)

There are whole lists of these titles, like this one from Vulture a couple of years ago.

This reminds me of the discussion about cover designs, how the major presses follow (and pretend to predict but really create) trends in what kinds of images will appear on covers; Monica Drake has spoken before about her fight to keep pink, lipstick-style fonts off her hardback cover for The Stud Book (the publishers wanted to market it as “women’s fiction,” whatever that is), and Dan Chaon once told students in my old grad program that the empty birdcage on the cover of his Among the Missing was just a stock image, that the publishers told him simply, “Bird cages are in this year.”

Apparently, “Girl” books are “in,” and have been for at least a few years now.

I’m not much of a marketer — I just write the books; my interest is in how readers engage with the story once it’s in their hands, not how to get it into their hands in the first place — but this has made me wonder if I ought to have retitled Hagridden as “The Girl in the Bayou,” especially considering that neither of the two women in my book have names, so the younger of them is always referred to simply as “the girl.” (Or, by her lovers, as the bayou term of endearment “sha.”)

Of course, there is discussion of how “girl” can demean the women at the hearts of some of these novels — Gone Girl‘s Amy Dunne is hardly some young, innocent child, and the titular “girl” on the train is a divorced — and very much adult — alcoholic. Sometimes, as a long-ago Guardian article noted about Lisbeth Salander, the title is calling attention to the disparity between attitude and reality and the demeaning ways in which other (mostly male) characters treat the women of these novels. But in other cases, it seems the capital-G “Girl” in the titles is just an easy marketing ploy.

In Hagridden, the girl is called the girl for two reasons, in this order: to distinguish her from her older mother-in-law; and to aid in the idea in that she and the nameless “old woman” are not less than people but greater than people, that they have faded into the marsh and become part of the land and the war itself, mythic agents of violence operating outside the mundane world of men. And most readers and many reviewers seem to get that.

But just for fun, I think whenever I have to give some new and curious reader the “elevator pitch” of my book, I’ll start telling them, “It’s kind of a thriller. Think of it as ‘The Girl in the Bayou,'” and I’ll see how they react. 😉


Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

4 thoughts on “The Girl in the Bayou

  1. “But in other cases, it seems the capital-G “Girl” in the titles is just an easy marketing ploy.”

    Yes. It’s often semiotic sleight-of-hand, like the covers of 1950s pulp novels.

    And like those books with 3-word titles constructed ‘The Name Noun’. I made the following up, but I’d bet a quid on somebody having used one of them before:

    ‘The Moscow Manoeuvre’
    ‘The Venus Connection’
    ‘The Putin Conspiracy’
    The Shanghai Mission’

    Maybe you should have called ‘Hagridden’ something like ‘The Louisiana _____’ or The Bayou _____’

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