Teenage readers may be far more influenced by their gender than the authors of set lists imagine, says Gordon Cairns
new survey on inspirational books shows that, in English at least, a new question should be asked - why do the girls continue to succeed, despite all of the advantages given to the boys? The survey, carried out by the University of London and published earlier this year, asked prominent men and women what books inspired them at watershed moments in their lives, and charted their responses in a male and female top 20.
The first surprise is that only four books make it on to both lists, which bluntly illustrates that men and women simply like different books. The second surprise is how good the Scottish Qualifications Authority is at deeming what is inspirational literature, for men at least.
High in the male chart were Higher English standards The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye and 1984. But, as far as I am aware, none of the books chosen by women as crucial to their development, including Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and The Handmaid's Tale, are taught at Higher level in Scotland.
Only Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which features on both male and female lists, is taught in Scotland, at Standard grade.
Many of the books on the male list are about social isolation and solitary struggle, with The Outsider at number one, while women chose more emotional, domestic works for their list, with Jane Eyre the favourite. Not surprisingly, the men favoured male writers almost exclusively while the women also preferred novels by their own sex, with only six men making it on to their list.
The challenge for the English teacher is to use this information in a mixed-sex classroom, to inspire their charges not only to pass their exams but to appreciate literature. If it is agreed that men and women enjoy different types of literature, it is not too great a leap to surmise that they enjoy different types of poetry and drama. Rather than trying to persuade a group of 16-year-old boys to tackle Jane Eyre, a novel about a young orphan raised by a cruel aunt, why not split upper school English classes into single-sex groups?
In this scenario, class texts can be chosen in line with the preferences of the sexes, allowing both boys and girls to feel more comfortable in exploring their emotions through literature.
This is especially pertinent as the report reveals that even how a reader approaches a book is governed by his or her sex. Many of the male readers saw the author as something of a mentor or literary guide and would go on to read other works by the same author or works recommended by that writer.
On the other hand, women choose titles through word of mouth recommendations from friends. To me, this would suggest a more hands-on approach for a female Higher class, but letting the boys discover the work for themselves and then encouraging them into secondary reading.
Reassuringly for teachers who feel they are fighting an uphill battle to encourage boys to read novels, the report suggests that, where they succeed, they will have planted a love for that piece of literature which will stay with the boy for a lifetime. The report's authors found that many men on the list found their inspirational texts during their adolescence.
If more female-friendly titles were part of the prescribed literature section of the English exam, then one can assume that the girls would do even better than the boys than they are doing now. But rather than looking on this as a male failure, as we do today, why not simply celebrate the female success?
The canny English teacher could look to the number one book on the list as one that could inspire his charges; not because Albert Camus's The Outsider has a powerful narrative drive, concerns a murder and is bluntly written ("Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know"), but because it clocks in at only 117 pages long. Even the most antagonistic non-reader should manage that over a term.
Gordon Cairns teaches in Glasgow.