David Gilmour is the kind of writer he “doesn’t love enough to teach.”
It’s not that he doesn’t love himself enough, it’s that he doesn’t love Canadian writers enough. He’s not big on women writers or Chinese writers either and doesn’t teach them in his short-fiction course at the University of Toronto (where he is not in the Department of English).
“I teach only the best,” he said in his Sept. 25th interview with Emily Keeler. Unfortunately for his students, Mr. Gilmour has a distinctly narrow view of the literary world. His “world literature” curriculum is limited to his favourite Russians, Tolstoy and Chekhov, Proust and American (but not Canadian) writers.
I’m not interested in teaching books by women … What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
So, okay, the guy teaches what he loves, the literature about which he feels passionate. This usually translates into lectures that students appreciate and can recall years later. Except that Mr. Gilmour says, “I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students. It’s the same thing.” Oh.
Mr. Gilmour is of course free to like or dislike any writer. I certainly have strong feelings about a number of writers. Some of those feelings I keep to myself because I couldn’t be bothered to deal with the “you don’t know what you’re talking about” retorts (which reminds me: isn’t it odd that Mr. Gilmour seems naive about the power of the media, after having worked in it for so many years? His quads must be getting quite a workout this week with all the back-peddling he’s doing).
So I keep it to myself that I’ve read Anna Karenina three times and I get less from it each time. Possibly I’m getting shallower with age. (Probably that scene with the doctor and the young virgin girl creeps me out more and more each time). We could argue that Mr. Gilmour is brave enough to be brazen enough to tell it like it is, for him. He is his own man, teaching at a big university without a doctorate (some of us here at Descant can see you sessionals out there reacting and we feel your pain, we really do).
And if his course was retitled (and you know it soon will be!) “Fiction by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, and Macho American Writers: No Women and No Chinese Writers” would any of this have been an issue? Is the problem simply one of taxonomy? Forgetting, for a moment, that taxonomies are developed by people and taken up and embedded in large institutions. Until they are disrupted.
Speaking of disruption, the (Canadian!) Griffin Poetry Prize winner Christian Bök was outraged enough by Mr. Gilmour’s comments that he proposed on the twittersphere that other similarly outraged citizens of literature put their money where their mouthiness is and donate to CWILA, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, “an inclusive national literary organization for people who share feminist values and see the importance of strong and active female perspectives within the Canadian literary landscape.” Today they are tongue-in-cheek thanking Mr. Gilmour for raising awareness for their organization which has, since his interview, translated into new members and more donations.
And if CWILA is now benefitting from Mr. Gilmour’s narrow intellectual tastes, let’s be careful about throwing stones. Because, really, in the scope of “world literature” how many books has any one of us read from over the six continents where writers and publishers labour to bring them into existence? (Though the important difference here is that we are not teaching a course on world literature; at least, I’m not). I only “discovered” Nigerian writers in the past few years (and I mostly just picked Nigeria here so I could recommend the oh-so-young Helen Oyeyemi to you! Start with Mr. Fox. You’ll understand immediately why).
We here at Descant are not all of the same opinion on this subject. Some say it’s a tempest in a teapot, the latest bit of media headline-grabbing; others are concerned by the apparent dismissal of all Canadian writers; some feel badly for the guy whom they think was taken out of context. The full transcript is here, so you can judge for yourself.
The least radical response is, Hey, we’re all talking about books and the value of reading broadly, how bad can that be?
Hopefully, for Mr. Gilmour’s sake, his run at the Giller Prize won’t be thwarted by readers who don’t appreciate writers because they are “Canadian.”