Aaron Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

Hey Girl, I Heard You Like Books With “Girl” in the Title: Reflecting on Five Years of Gone Girl

This essay contains spoilers for Gone Girl.

Gone Girl came into the world on May 24th, 2012, and the five years since its publication have seen a seismic shift in literature as authors and publishers scrambled to create “the next Gone Girl.” The influence of Gillian Flynn’s novel can be seen not just in the many fictional women who are subverting gender expectations across all genres, and not just in the imitators of her distinctive vocabulary (reading Flynn is like the literary equivalent of grabbing a fistful of dirt and finding a razor blade; her greasy prose evokes the down-to-earth qualities of Stephen King), but in the titles of the books that have been coming out over the past half-decade.

The thing about Gone Girl is that it’s a good title. It’s a really good title. It’s alliterative, it’s percussive, it’s easy to say and easy to remember. More importantly, it tells you everything you need to know about what kind of novel it’s going to be: the connotation of “Gone” tells you that it’s a mystery/thriller, and the connotation of “Girl” tells you that it’s going to be dealing with gender roles in some way. Both of these words are tantalizingly vague, and once you read the book and discover what has happened to Amy Dunne, you realize that “Girl” is both a playful and indignant attack on modern gender roles in America. Heck, so is “Gone.”

You’ve probably noticed the seemingly-relentless deluge of books with “Girl” in the title that have been coming out over the past few years, a trend which has inspired what seems like an equal number of thinkpieces about the latest obsession in the literary world. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, broke down some “Girl”-related statistics by way of Goodreads and shared them in a piece for FiveThirtyEight called “The Gone Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on the Train” (I’ve included the URL at the end of this essay, along with the other articles I will be referencing, should you wish to read further).

Perhaps most noteworthy of her findings was that 1% of all fiction published in 2016 had the word “Girl” in the title (and that percentage is still going up). She also discovered that “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.” Extrapolate from that what you will. Mandel’s research doesn’t tell us why any of this is happening, but it does provide a point of reference for the collective frenzy of speculation in which we’ve found ourselves.

So which books are really responsible for the “Girl” phenomenon? Gone Girl? The Girl on the Train? The one-two punch of those novels undoubtedly boosted the numbers, but the Goodreads statistics indicate that the trend was well underway years before they were released. The 20th century had its “Girl” books, although they were fewer and farther between; perhaps 1993’s Girl, Interrupted set things in motion? The most likely candidate for patient zero seems, at least to me, to be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was published in Sweden in 2005 before coming to the United States in 2008—at which point the number of “Girl” titles skyrockets.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo originally bore a different title in Swedish: Män som hatar kvinnor, which translates to Men Who Hate Women. Christopher Shultz, in an April 2015 article for Litreactor entitled “The Girl Who Starred in All the Books,” makes a surprising case for the English title as an empowering statement: “The new title shifts attention away from the aggressive and victimizing men and back onto the women at large, the (would-be) victims represented by Lisbeth. Furthermore, this dragon tattoo, rather than being a point of sexualization, symbolizes Lisbeth’s (and all women’s) power, ferociousness and formidable nature—just in the way the mythical dragon is a creature both revered and respected, or feared and, thus, dominated.” This is a sentiment which I find convincing but crucially incomplete.

The English title is certainly playing with gender expectations, juxtaposing the presumed innocence of “Girl” with the presumed take-no-prisoners attitude associated with “Dragon Tattoo.” I still find the Swedish title to be challenging and subversive in a way that the English title is not. Men Who Hate Women. Yes, it hands attention back over to “the aggressive and victimizing men.” But what Shultz fails to note is that titles carry connotations and stigma which can enrich the text of a book by pushing against it, and that matters more than ever in the age of social media—the age where everyone knows what you’re reading, even if you don’t announce it to the world through Goodreads or Facebook or Twitter. Case-in-point: there’s a Tumblr account called “coverspy,” which posts descriptions of people spotted in New York City along with the title and cover of the book they are carrying.

There’s a sense that, by reading a book, you are tacitly agreeing with whatever morals or messages are contained within (this is probably why I am so drawn to novels that encourage you to read against the text—I find it deeply rewarding to unpack and uncover disparities between what is actually happening in a book and the tone with which it is presented). Look at the most obvious example: Mein Kampf. Is everyone who reads it a potential Hitler? Of course not. That book is an important historical text, and it has educational value. But it’s certainly not a book that people want to be seen with. There’s a discomforting quality to it, and that stems from stigma. It cannot legally be sold in the Netherlands. Its status as a bestseller in India is highly controversial. The Boston Children’s Museum even turned down a substantial donation because it would have come from proceeds generated by Mein Kampf (publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt donates revenue from the book to causes which promote tolerance and education).

Mein Kampf is obviously an extreme example, but it’s clear that there is difficulty in disassociating a book from its ideologies. This is where titles come into play. If someone asks you what book you’re reading, you’re probably going to tell them the title. If someone sees you reading a book, they see the title. They may not know anything about the book, and so they must extrapolate from those few words on the cover. Imagine, then, that someone sees you reading a book called Men Who Hate Women. It would be discomforting, if not outright embarrassing, especially for male readers. It would be like saying, though implication, men should hate women. That’s why it’s such a good title. It’s crude, it’s creepy, and it’s profoundly unnerving. But the title the novel came to be known by, of course, is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and from that title stemmed (at least) ten years of equally-oblique “Girl” titles.

The non-oblique exception is Gone Girl. Steph Post, in an article for Litreactor called “Give the Girl a Name, Already!”, argues that any girl worth a book title is worth naming in that title, citing classics such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, Moll Flanders, and Anna Karenina. Names-as-titles don’t seem to interest readers much anymore (if their absence is any indication; a few still pop up here and there)—regardless, Post profoundly misses the point of titles like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. “Why we feel the need to infantilize these characters is beyond me,” she says. “It could be tongue-in-cheek, but I’m honestly not picking up on the joke.” It is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not a joke: it’s subversion by way of deprecation, deliberately downplaying the strength of these women so the reveal is that much more…well, to put it inelegantly, shocking.

“Girl” titles aren’t merely descriptors; they are inextricably tied with narrative. Robin Wasserman’s Lithub article “What Does It Mean When We Call Women Girls?” sheds light on how “Girl” specifically functions as a counterpoint to “Woman” and draws attention to the liminal state between those two mindsets: “Despite being domestic thrillers about marriage and motherhood, the girl books tend not to actually depict domestic life—instead, they track various escapes from it. These are women in flight or exile from the trappings of womanhood.” To be a girl, for Wasserman, seems to be something that is consciously claimed rather than forcibly delegated, a revitalization of risk and irrational energy that powers change and transformation. The word “Girl” in a title, then, implies growth, which attracts us as readers because we know that emotionally static characters are typically not interesting.

“If there is a thematic message encoded in the ‘girl’ narratives,” Wasserman continues, “I think this is its key: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from being someone to being someone’s wife, someone’s mother. Girl attunes us to what might be gained and lost in the transformation, and raises a possibility of reversion. To be called ‘just a girl’ may be diminishment, but to call yourself ‘still a girl,’ can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth.” Through this lens, the three most prominent “Girl” books all wield the word to different effects—Gone Girl is false modesty, The Girl on the Train evokes immaturity, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seizes the “unencumbered liberties of youth” in a bloody fist. The true natures of these titles are revealed only when juxtaposed against the characters they are actually describing, and it is this quality that makes them so effective.

That’s a lot of theorizing, but where does it leave us? We haven’t yet distilled what makes “Girl” such an infectious titling trend, which I would argue comes down to five core qualities.

  1. The most obvious reason is marketing. “Girl” books, especially mystery/thrillers, have proven to sell well—or, at least, five of them have proven to sell well (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and Larsson’s original Millennium trilogy), and the rest are hoping to ride the wave. Isn’t that dodging the question, though? Why do they sell well? It’s not necessarily due to the quality of the books; there’s only one great novel in the aforementioned group as far as I’m concerned (you can probably guess which one given that I’m writing an essay about it), and we can surely apply Sturgeon’s Law—90% of everything is crap—to the literally hundreds of other books with “Girl” in the title.
  2. Equally important (but far easier to overlook) are the phonetic qualities of the word. “Girl” just sounds good; its single syllable provides it with a rhythmic quality that plays well with all sorts of phrases. Its obvious counterpart, “woman,” is much clumsier. The Woman on the Train. Gone Woman. The Woman With the Dragon Tattoo. They don’t have quite the same ring. Gone Woman loses the essential alliteration, and the two consecutive stressed syllables are much more difficult to say than the simple trochee of Gone Girl. The Woman on the Train and The Woman With the Dragon Tattoo are marginally better, although they lose the repetition of the “r” sound and are cluttered with another needless syllable.
  3. “Girl” is vague. It’s about as vague as you can possibly get. It works as a straightforward descriptor for a young woman, as a subversive descriptor for a psychopath, even as a humanizing descriptor for a zombie (shoutout to The Girl With All the Gifts). That opacity means it can be used in a variety of contexts, taking on a variety of meanings, and part of the appeal is in discovering what that meaning is in each particular book.
  4. The use of the word “girl” indicates that the book is dealing with sex or gender in some way, and that attracts us as readers because we know how volatile those topics have been throughout history and continue to be in the modern world. Perhaps the titular girl is trans. Perhaps she is a serial killer. Perhaps she is escaping a toxic marriage. The girl is a role model, a fantasy, a fever dream, a daydream. The girl is whoever you want her to be. The girl is you.
  5. Perhaps most intriguing is the adult/young adult division; “boy” tends to be used in YA book titles much more frequently than “girl,” whereas the reverse is true for adult fiction. This is pure speculation, of course, but I suspect that this is because of sexual connotations. “Man” has more of a sexual connotation than “boy,” and “girl” has more of a sexual connotation than “woman” (what that says about our culture is a whole essay unto itself), so, naturally, authors and publishers—whether consciously or not—tend to stay away from “girl” in books for younger readers and use it excessively when marketing for adults. After all: sex sells.

This isn’t all about titles, though. Gone Girl wouldn’t have been or continue to be the success that it is if its title were its only notable quality. But before we get to that, let’s back up for a moment: what about Gillian Flynn’s earlier novels, 2006’s Sharp Objects and 2009’s Dark Places? The former feels like a progenitor to Gone Girl in my respects, lacing a straightforward but compelling thriller with elements of body horror, explorations of mental illness, and a light form of the gender commentary which will become so prominent in Gone Girl. Dark Places is the weakest of the three books, and the reason is hardly surprising given the strengths of the adjacent novels—it has nothing to say. Flynn still knows her way around a sentence, there’s no doubt about that; her sophomore effort is gritty and grimy and gross, the kind of book that makes you want to take a shower after setting it down (that’s a compliment). But there’s no satire, and Flynn shines when she takes her thematic knife to the various hypocrisies of American society.

Gone Girl’s structure brings into focus the strength of its satire. It is divided into three core sections: “Boy Loses Girl,” “Boy Meets Girl,” and “Boy Gets Girl Back (Or Vice Versa),” an obvious play on the romantic comedy arc of “Boy Gets Girl,” “Boy Loses Girl,” and “Boy Gets Girl Back.” Flynn knows how conditioned we are as an audience to expect these three acts, so she subverts them on three axes—gender, possession, and what we as readers want for our characters. Stories like these are typically put into motion by the male character, who intends to convince the female character that she wants to be with him; in Gone Girl, it is Amy who drives the action, and Nick finds himself trapped with her against his wishes by the end of the novel. The traditional gender roles have been flipped. Reactive becomes active, and it is the woman who takes possession of the man. This also complicates character sympathy, because we are both in favor of Amy’s feminist ideals and revolted by her misanthropy.

It is due to this dichotomy that Gone Girl has such a contentious relationship with feminism. How do you deal with a character who, despite being a psychopath and cold-blooded killer, manages to articulate so clearly the problems with America’s treatment of women? How do you show your support for one aspect of a character without condoning the other? Because Amy Dunne’s incisive exposé of the internalized misogyny that permeates our culture is entirely on-point. But Amy Dunne also slits someone’s throat and attempts to frame her husband for murder, which I hope we can agree are generally inappropriate behaviors. Readers and critics are simply too quick to conflate Amy with the book itself; she and the text are not synonymous, and her philosophies are not necessarily the philosophies of the novel. Amy Dunne is not a feminist character, but Gone Girl is a feminist book. The difficulty lies in separating the two.

That’s precisely why Gone Girl is so good. Megan Abbott writes in “Crime Fiction in 2015: The Rise of the Girl That Could Be Any of Us” that “Classic sensation novels are safer propositions, because in them order is restored at the end, errant women are contained, no horrors are left gaping. Meanwhile, our contemporary ‘Girl’ novels, bearing the influence of the noir tradition, and the messier landscape of true crime, aren’t much for tidy endings. They even bear a kind of threat: their readers, at least in fantasy, may not remain passive spectators to trauma and violence.” It is for this reason that Gone Girl is as profoundly discomforting as it is thrilling. Amy Dunne attempts to make a statement about feminism, and she does it the only way she knows people will listen—by taking advantage of the American media and its obsession with dead, white, upper/middle-class women. We as readers are left at an impasse. How do we create change, bring about equality, if we live in poverty? Aren’t white? Aren’t dead?

How do you make anyone sit down, shut up, and listen? How do you convince anyone that even though all of this looks okay, none of this is okay? How else, outside of violence, do you make your voice heard? This question is the one upon which America was built. This question is the one that makes Gone Girl so perpetually magnetic, so inscrutable, so wicked and so willfully difficult. Can words say anything not said better by the broken coffee table, the overturned furniture, the shards of glass left behind by Amy Dunne? The knife in her hand? These aren’t rhetorical questions. Amy Dunne merely made us believe they were.

As of 2017, there is simply no work of 21st-century adult fiction that has had anything resembling Gone Girl’s meteoric impact on the literary world (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its post-apocalyptic setting and aesthetic rigor, is probably the closest contender). There have been critical successes, certainly, and there have been commercial successes, but nothing else that has truly redefined the way literature thinks about itself. The other examples all come from junior and young adult fiction: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars. Gone Girl dominates its demographic—or, at least, it did. Its place in the canon is secure; its reign is over. “Girl” titles may still be on the rise, but literature as a whole is again searching for an undiscovered country with untapped minerals to mine. And once it is found, and it will be, we’ll be having this same conversation all over again as authors and publishers scramble, belatedly, to board the bandwagon. After all—you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s…

Essay by Aaron Larson

Works consulted:

Abbott, Megan. “Crime Fiction in 2015: The Rise of the Girl That Could Be Any of Us.” 29 Dec. 2015. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/29/crime-fiction-gone-girl-on-the-train-2015>.

“The Book Title With the 91 Imitators.” Vulture. 26 Jan. 2014. Web. <http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/girl-book-titles.html>.

Brown, Caitlin. “Girls! Girls! Girls!” 11 Aug. 2016. Web. <http://www.booklistreader.com/2016/08/11/books-and-authors/girls-girls-girls/>.

Conklin, Audrey. “The Word ‘Girl’ in Book Titles.” The Odyssey. 22 Aug. 2016. Web. <https://www.theodysseyonline.com/word-girl-book-titles>.

Gay, Malcolm. “Boston Publisher Struggles With ‘Mein Kampf’ Profits.” 1 May 2016. Web. <https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2016/04/30/boston-publisher-grapples-with-mein-kampf-profits/zgFxVGBpfPx98xKchc382L/story.html>.

“The ‘Girl’ in the Title: More Than a Marketing Trend.” NPR. 22 Feb. 2016. Web. <http://www.npr.org/2016/02/22/467392750/the-girl-in-the-title-more-than-a-marketing-trend>.

Kogan, Deborah. “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters.” 9 Apr. 2013. Web. <https://www.thenation.com/article/my-so-called-post-feminist-life-arts-and-letters/>.

Liang, Adrian. “We’ve Read a Lot of ‘Girl’ Books Lately. Will 2017 Be the Year of the ‘Woman’?” 2 Jan. 2017. Web. <http://www.omnivoracious.com/2017/01/weve-read-a-lot-of-girl-books-will-2017-be-the-year-of-the-woman-amazon-book-review.html>.

Mandel, Emily St. John. “The Gone Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on the Train.” FiveThirtyEight. 27 Oct. 2016. Web. <https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-gone-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-on-the-train/>.

Orr, Deborah. “Steig Larsson’s Being Ironic, But Generally ‘Girl’ Book Titles Demean Women.” 7 June 2010. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jun/07/girl-book-titles-demean-women>.

Post, Steph. “Give the Girl a Name, Already!” LitReactor. 5 Apr. 2017. Web. <https://litreactor.com/columns/give-the-girl-a-name-already>.

Shultz, Christopher. “The Girl Who Starred in All the Books.” LitReactor. 20 Apr. 2015. Web. <https://litreactor.com/columns/the-girl-who-starred-in-all-the-books>.

Stein, Sadie. “Book Titles Are For ‘Girls,’ Not ‘Women.’” 8 June 2010. Web. <http://jezebel.com/5558538/book-titles-are-for-girls-not-women>.

Wasserman, Robin. “What Does It Mean When We Call Women Girls?” Lithub. 18 May 2016. Web. <http://lithub.com/what-does-it-mean-when-we-call-women-girls/>.

Wiseman, Eva. “The Woman on the Train With a Book With ‘Girl’ in the Title.” 8 Jan. 2017. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/08/the-woman-on-the-train-with-a-book-with-girl-in-the-title>.

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