where the writers are
The next book in my class

Mystery writer L.J. Sellers (The Sex Club) started an interesting thread on www.kindleboards.com, saying, "I've had to admit to myself recently that I'm more likely to try a new author in the crime genre if he's male. Don't get me wrong, I read female crime writers, but typically after they're highly recommended. With other genres, the author's gender seems less significant. Does author gender affect your decisions, particularly with certain genres?"

Some of the responses spoke directly of genre, such as author Mary McDonald who wrote, "I seem to gravitate towards male writers in the thriller genre. How bad does that make me since I'm a female and write thrillers?"

A woman named Michelle wrote, "I trust a woman to do better with romances -- because men who attempt it seem, surprisingly, more treacly than women. If I want hardcore horror, I probably without realizing it lean more toward a male author."

Most of the responses, though, said that the gender of the author makes no difference. One person added, "What I read may trend more towards male writers than female writers, not sure of the percentage, but it's entirely coincidental."

When I started teaching College English about twelve years ago, I made a list of books that I'd love to teach, and they were all male writers. "Coincidence," I thought at first, but I realized the novels in my English classes when I was a student were almost entirely male. Even so, after college, my favorite authors included some women, such as Erica Jong, whose Fear of Flying spoke to me not just about traveling but also gave me insight into the female libido. Lisa Alther's Kinflicks was supremely funny and sexy. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was about as perfect as a novel could get.

In those days I was also a huge fan of books by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., J.D. Salinger, John Updike, John Steinbeck, Walker Percy's Lancelot, William Wharton's Birdy and Dad, and Mark Helprin's Ellis Island and Other Stories, among many other books by male authors. Some of those ended up on my list while the female authors had not.

So now that I was about to teach, I wanted to do two major things: teach only contemporary novels and balance gender. I wanted contemporary work because that might speak to the students more directly, and they wouldn't have Cliff's Notes to read instead of the book.  I wanted include at least one male and one female author because while neither gender was better, there are subtle differences that are important, and I wanted my students to leave each semester with loving at least one contemporary book.  

Most leave loving two books, to my delight. Presently, we're reading Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, which happens to be less contemporary than I usually do, but this semester I added an extra challenge to my teaching. We have a theme: food. While the students have to finish the novel next week, a number have already finished because they could not stop reading--a good sign.

Next up is Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Year of the Flood, which takes place in the near future after most of humankind has died off, and those few who haven't died from whatever the "waterless flood" is are surviving by knowing how to grow their own food.

For my male writer, I added a nonfiction book, Food Rules by Michael Pollan. While it's not a novel, he'll give us many points for discussion, and the book will catapult the students into their last big project, a research paper.

When I was in college, my English classes did not particularly inspire me. While it's a lot to expect that I can fire up students in ways my own instructors had not, that's my goal. As a writer, I want to create more readers and make them feel that their thoughts and their voices are important.

Every semester, I change books, which keeps me on my toes. For the novels that have worked best with college students, I've created an Amazon Listmania list, and it has novels by authors I may not have discovered if I hadn't been teaching.

For me, teaching English has given me a sense of a particular audience, people in their twenties who are driven to discover their world.