Boys to Men

Earlier this week I began a light-hearted look at the most common nouns that appear in the titles of bestselling novels—but my research turned into something a little more unsettling.

While I can reveal that “secret”, “day”, “time”, and “house” are among the nouns that have become your biggest bankers, it saddens me to report that, where novels are concerned at least, men are "men" but women are "girls".

Fact One: Of the top 1,000 bestselling adult novels of 2013 with titles that contain male gender terms (and by this I mean specifically "man" or "men" and "boy" or "boys") 93% contain "man" or "men" with just 7% containing "boy(s)". Whereas, of the bestselling novels with titles that contain female gender terms, we see just 19% containing the adult "woman"/"women" but an overwhelming 81% containing "girl(s)".

Fact Two: Of the novels due for publication in the UK this year that contain male gender terms in their titles, more than three-quarters feature the word "man"/"men", but the comparative figure for "woman"/"women" is little over a third.

So, novelists are writing more stories about men than boys and more stories about girls than women, right?


This terminology bias rarely reflects the age of the characters involved. Countless bestselling novels feature an adult female character diminutively labelled "girl" in the title. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (woman goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary) and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (twentysomething computer hacker solves a cold case with a disgraced hack) being among the most obvious examples.

But rarely is this true for male characters. A case in point: Alexander McCall Smith's Morality is for Beautiful Girls but his Kalahari Typing School is for Men.

Now, I'm not going to start accusing publishers, editors and authors of being guilty of deliberate sexism, but it does appear that the industry is guilty of reflecting current cultural attitudes towards gender—and perhaps even negatively fostering them.

Novels That Get it Right

* Sue Townsend's The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
* Susan Hill's The Woman in Black
* Danielle Steel's A Good Woman
* Dorothy Koomson's The Woman He Loved Before
* Henning Mankell's The Fifth Woman
* Josephine Cox's The Woman Who Left
* Barbara Taylor Bradford's Power of a Woman
* Douglas Kennedy's The Woman in the Fifth
* John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman
* Wiklie Collins' The Woman in White

Novels That Don't

* Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl
* Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (etc)
* Jojo Moyes' The Girl You Left Behind
* Katie Price's The Comeback Girl
* Jane Costello's Girl on the Run
* Jackie Collins' Poor Little Bitch Girl
* Sophie Kinsella's Twenties Girl
* Simon Mawer's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
* Lindsey Kelk's The Single Girl's To-Do List
* Tess Gerritsen's The Silent Girl
* Savannah Fox's The Dirty Girls Book Club
* Joanna Trollope's The Men and the Girls
* Kelly Hunter's Single Girl Abroad
* Milly Johnson's Here Come the Girls
* Val Wood's The Harbour Girl
* Lily Baxter's The Girls in Blue
* Gemma Burgess' A Girl Like You
* Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl
* Regina Perry's I Kissed a Girl
* Fiona Gibson's Lucky Girl