The girl with ‘Girl’ in her title
Catherine Ryan Howard says let’s hear it for the girls. Don’t roll your eyes if a book has girl in the title
Catherine Ryan Howard: The Liar’s Girl does not feature tattoos, trains or psychopathic women
My new book is called The Liar’s Girl.
Chances are I’ll say this to you apologetically, perhaps with a sheepish grin. If I detect an imminent eye-roll, I’ll quickly follow up with some conspiratorial comment about my publishers, perhaps even joke that they want to call my next book The Girl In The Window Of The Train Whose Tattoo Is Gone. You’ll say, ‘I’m so sick of these girl books,’ or ‘I really hate that word’ or ‘Ugh, why does everyone feel the need to copy The Girl On The Train?’ even though that book came after Gone Girl and that book came out after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and you are, in all probability, a former girl yourself. And I’ll nod and smile and mumble something that sounds like agreement because I don’t want to be a bad feminist – or is that what we’re supposed to be now? I can’t keep up, the rules seem to change daily – but I’ll already be hating myself for not saying how I really feel.
Which is that The Liar’s Girl is the perfect title for my book – the one I spent 18 months of my life writing while also trying to keep up with the undergraduate degree I, for some reason lost to me now, embarked on at the age of 32, and my life’s work, ie rewatching everything on Netflix, which you have just summarily dismissed on the strength of a single word. My girl is a girl – a teenage girl. She’s also the ex-girlfriend of my villain but The Liar’s Girlfriend, I’m sure you’ll agree, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. (And it’s a tad long for the obligatory hashtag.) My girl isn’t dead, missing or drunk, and her narration is – spoiler alert! – wholly reliable.
Publishing is a business and there’s a difference between acknowledging a popular trend in the hopes of connecting the right books with the right readers, and shamelessly jumping on a bandwagon in an effort to hoodwink buyers into thinking this new book is just like that other one that sold millions. (The Liar’s Girl does not feature tattoos, trains or psychopathic women. Oh, hang on. There is, actually, one brief scene that takes place on the Dart.) And if you’re operating a strict no-girl-in-the-title policy, I presume you haven’t read Emma Cline’s The Girls and won’t be reading the great Edna O’Brien’s forthcoming novel either? Due out next year, it’s called, simply, Girl.
I have never rejected a book purely because of a single word that appears in its title and I’m genuinely confused by people who do, especially when so many of them are feminists I respect and admire. Isn’t this just a different brand of silencing female voices? After all, these books are, by and large, written by women, about women, for women. This ‘girl’ trend has helped moved crime fiction on from the standard serial killer thriller, where the main female character had rigor mortis by the end of chapter one.
As an Irish writer of commercial fiction, I know that when people talk about ‘Irish Writing’, they don’t mean me. (And that’s okay. I know that when I talk about making a living as a writer, I don’t mean them. Ooh, burn! You know what? Maybe I’m not that okay with it after all… ) What I didn’t realise is that, as feminists, we’re apparently only allowed to champion women who write a certain kind of book aimed at a certain kind of reader. It’d be helpful to know the rules. Does anyone have a copy of them they could email me?
These ‘girl’ books have made numerous women publishing superstars. It’s worked so well that now even the guys are getting in on the action. Once upon a time, a genderless initials-only pseudonym did the business. Now we have the likes of Riley Sager, author of The Final Girls, who is actually Todd to his friends. (And he’s amped up his ‘girl’ factor to plural. Whoa.) This is something we should be celebrating, not tearing down.
But these are grown women, you complain. Calling them girls infantilises them, robs them of their agency, makes them sound weak. Words have power, you say, and I agree. ‘Girl’ has a special power all of its own. Danya Kukafka, author of Girl In Snow, says that we use the word ‘girl’ because no other word feels quite the same. ‘There is something chemical in the word itself,’ she wrote for ThePool.com earlier this year. ‘It touches us in places we’ve long forgotten.’ In January 2017, rhe Guardian’s Eva Wiseman set about reading these ‘girl’ books to find out why there were so many of them, and why so many of them sold so well. Admitting that she had entered into this endeavour with ‘a mean sort of cynicism’, her conclusion came as a surprise to her. ‘Right there,’ she wrote, ‘embossed on the front, is the promise that this is a story about a girl who will not play like those who have come before … the girl is a “girl” not because she’s weak, but because she is on the verge of changing into something else.’ Wiseman is describing my ‘girl’ perfectly there, if I do say so myself.
And let’s be honest: we say ‘girl’. I know I do. I may be 35, but I still have to tell the girls my news, have a girls’ night out (or, well, more than likely in these days) and stalk – I mean, um, browse – the Facebook pages of the girls I went to school with. I’m old enough to remember the Spice Girls and I remember their girl power as being a good thing.
So before you roll your eyes at the next book you see with ‘girl’ in the title, stop and think. Consider that it was probably written by a girl like you, for a girl like you, about a girl like you. This girl hopes you’ll give it a chance.
The Liar’s Girl is out on March 1st from Corvus