Toronto writer David Gilmour, whose new novel Extraordinary was recently published by Patrick Crean Editions, is being publicly flogged for saying that he doesn’t want to teach women writers in his Victoria College classes at the University of Toronto. He made the remark to a Hazlitt writer named Emily M. Keeler, who then made it pretty well the centre of the puff piece she did for the online magazine. Keeler didn’t quite take the remark out of context, but she did set him up, and then didn’t query his slightly flippant answer further. Part of the fault also lies with Gilmour, who didn’t bother to contextualize what he’d said adequately, probably because he was more interested in explaining why he taught the writers he does teach: Chekhov, Proust, Tolstoy, Philip Roth and others.
Gilmour has been teaching his courses for seven years under a tacit agreement with the university that he can teach the writers he “really loves” (as he puts it). His lover’s list is well worth reading, too, although at this point in my life I’d substitute Dostoyevsky for Tolstoy, and have a few naps while he’s explicating Proust. But if I’d run into Gilmour while I was a 19 year old university student, I’d have thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
It’s worth having a look at the transcript of the interview to get exactly what Gilmour did say.
Keeler: I notice that you don’t have many, like, books by women.
Gilmour: I’m not interested in teaching books by women. I’ve never found—Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one short story from Virginia Woolf. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would teach only the people that I truly, truly love. And, unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Um. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I try Virginia Woolf, I find she actually doesn’t work. She’s too sophisticated. She’s too sophisticated for even a third-year class. So you’re quite right, and usually at the beginning of the semester someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I’m good at is guys.
The careless phrase that plunged him into the hot water was, methinks, this one: if you want women writers go down the hall.
The reality of today’s universities is that they’re putting at least as much energy and funding into teaching women’s studies, GLTS studies, and ethnic literature as they are into teaching mainstream Western literature and/or the history of Western ideas, (both of which are commonly denigrated these days) and that’s why he feels no obligation to teach women writers: they’re already getting covered. The same goes for gay writers or ethnic writers chosen for their gay or ethnic content. (He does teach Proust and Truman Capote, but not because they’re gay.) I’m pretty sure that “down the hall” would have taken Keeler to those departments.
Had Gilmour been a little less flippant about his direction-giving, none of this nonsense would now be dogging him. His bad, I suppose, but it hardly warrants a public flogging or the non-renewal of his teaching gig that is almost certainly going to result. The shitstorm of controversy swirling around what he said, meanwhile, might be saying a lot more about the discursive atmosphere within our universities and the abusive myopia of the blogosphere than it does about David Gilmour’s alleged misogyny.
The beleaguered liberal arts faculties of our public universities, are, today, pretty much free of the heterogeneous civil discourse that it was once their job to foster in an informed citizenship. Where they’re not under the genial guidance of intellectually disgraced Marxists and other intellectual partisans trying to balance reductive ideological systems on the head of a pin, they’re programs of retributive justice apologizing to anyone and everything that 19th and 20th century capitalist societies treated unfairly: women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBT. All of these groups have had legitimate beefs, but rhetorical retribution at the expense of open discourse will neither bring the victims back to life or, arguably far more important, guarantee their safety in the future, as all the screeching rocket attacks and half-baked yelling over Gilmour’s insensitivity to the current Zeitgeist demonstrates. It has the intellectual equanimity of the Spanish Inquisition, and to me it looks a lot more like a cattle stampede than the debate over values in teaching, literature, or anything else that Gilmour’s remarks should have invoked.
September 27th, 2013 760 w.