THE BLOG
09/26/2013 04:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

What We Should Talk About When We Talk About David Gilmour

In case Jonathan Franzen has too quickly convinced everyone that sexism doesn't really persist in the literary world, let them feast their eyes on David Gilmour's new interview in Hazlitt, Random House of Canada's online magazine. Gilmour, a novelist and lecturer at the University of Toronto, sparked controversy across American and Canadian media with his bizarre and unapologetically sexist remarks. Most notably, Gilmour dismissed fiction by women, not to mention gay writers and writers of color, repeatedly emphasizing that he only teaches "guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.... I teach only the best." Don't worry, David. We get it. You love heterosexual guys.

Of course, the sad thing about Gilmour's blatantly sexist comments is that they reveal the deeply ingrained misogyny -- and homophobia and racism -- that runs throughout the literary world as a whole, and academia in particular. After all, it's not uncommon for an English lit course, even broad survey courses, to contain few if any women or minority writers; while the professor is unlikely to openly dismiss the value of such writers to the students, the implicit message of such an unbalanced syllabus is different in degree, not kind. When I took a humanities course in college meant to ground freshmen in the Western canon, only a tiny smattering of women and minorities were included in the many writers and artists we studied. More troublingly, even those highly influential inclusions -- Jane Austen and Madame de La Fayette, for example, pioneers of the modern novel form -- were treated with contempt by many of my male classmates, who refused to be convinced by our professors that these non-white men were included for reasons beyond PC tokenism.

Our societal conditioning to automatically respect white, straight male writers arises from a certain logic -- after all, most of the influential writers, artists, and thinkers over the course of Western history were white, (purportedly) straight men. The long-running exclusion of women and minority writers from the literary mainstream has ensured few of them, at least until recent years, have been able to claim to be influential, and a work's influence defines its place in the canon. A lack of women and minority authors in the canon inevitably allowed an archetype of "white male author" to coalesce -- an archetype that still holds significant power. When even those women and minorities who contributed seminal works of literature to the canon are scoffed at and left unread by purported scholars of English, our understanding of our culture is damaged and our societal blindness toward the value of non-white male authors increases.

Academia has made efforts to mitigate the crushing white masculinity of teaching to the canon, especially in recent decades, by ensuring the inclusion of brilliant, groundbreaking authors such as Austen and George Eliot. Moreover, there has been a broad movement to open up the focus to non-canonical literature, allowing a constellation of more contemporary literary stars such as Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Alice Munro, and Zadie Smith to dominate discussion in classes on contemporary fiction, or in gender studies or African-American studies classes. Nor is this mere "tokenism" -- our culture is impoverished when it ignores genius merely because it's found in an unexpected person, and making a concerted effort to seek out and study works by marginalized writers saves many great books from slipping through the cracks of literary history. No one benefits when works by authors such as Virginia Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston are hidden from view. But a foundational distrust in the authority of women/minority writers persists, as evidenced by my classmates' blind contempt for the women writers in our Western canon class.

What value, then, does Gilmour add to his students' education by turning his literature classes into apparent celebrations of white male dominance? Our culture makes it devastatingly easy for white male writers to be admired and perceived as great artists -- reviewers' haste to crown Jonathan Franzen's merely adequate novel Freedom as the Great American Novel makes that much clear. Teaching students to worship the "coolness" of Chekhov and the "serious heterosexuality" of Roth only narrows their minds and reinforces disdain for marginalized voices. But perhaps Gilmour needs a reminder that the study of literature is not merely meant to be an opportunity to isolate oneself in an echo chamber of white middle-aged male sexuality; it's an opportunity to find relatability and value in experiences outside one's own.

Even if Gilmour does, as his public statements suggest, primarily value literature that reflects his own experiences, he should be cognizant of the many women and minority students who will not find such a self-reflection in his assignments -- Henry Miller, Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Junot Diaz, a consistent advocate for diversity in publishing, said in a recent interview, "We still imagine a white writer as the universal writer -- and that absurdity is becoming almost unsustainable. When I look at the kids that are coming up, they look nothing like the writers that we're all running around calling the voice of this country." Gilmour's assumption that uber-masculine white writers are so universally relatable and essential -- so much so that they can make up an entire syllabus claiming to represent "modern short fiction" -- stems from a solipsism among the white male elite that is painful to hear aloud but, as Diaz suggests, is widespread in the field. And, as Diaz suggests, it is increasingly outdated as women and writers of color produce more and more literature worthy of study -- and with a better claim to representing the experiences of our diverse society's readership.

The lesson taken from this interview by most of the outraged Internet critics appears to be that Gilmour is ill-suited to mold the minds of young English scholars in a university setting. I don't believe his tastes are at odds with his role as a professor; there still is and should be room in academia for the study of the traditional canon, and so there should be for hypermasculine authors. If Gilmour wished to teach a class explicitly focused on masculinity in literature, this could provide a great opportunity to students who wished to explore masculine norms and their expression through literature in a critical and analytical forum. But teaching a class on modern short fiction that utterly dismisses the potential contributions of women merely suggests that no women in that genre are worthy of being studied -- or, in the case of Virginia Woolf, that they're just too good (an impressively acrobatic avoidance of teaching even one woman). Failing such scholarship on masculinity in literature, he's welcome to enjoy only literature that oozes testosterone, but this enjoyment does not qualify him to be a professor. His professed inability to teach Woolf to third-year students would seem to disqualify him further.

But the more important lesson we should take from this episode goes far beyond the issue of one professor designing sexist syllabi. It should be a call to redouble our efforts to revitalize a field always at risk of stagnating over a musty white male narrative. It should be a reminder that passing on our literary tradition to new generations is a weighty responsibility, and one that should be undertaken with an open mind and a desire to advance the study of literature to new frontiers. Because the last thing literature students need is encouragement to cultivate narrow-mindedness or to prejudge works by the gender and race of the author. I shudder to think of the world -- free of Leslie Silkos, Lorrie Moores, and Edwidge Danticats -- young women and people of color would have in which to read then.

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