Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gilmour's Diss on Girls

When I was in school, it was a point of pride that I took damn near every genre literature class they offered. Science Fiction and Fantasy? Sign me up. Horror? Sure. Carribean lit? Uh-huh. The Canadian Short Story? It was only a semester, but okay! Wading through piles of weird, unusual, and non-canonical literature had the effect of elevating oft-ignored writing into something worthy of our consideration. And while it was a shame that each class existed in its own little bubble, the end result of taking many, many genre lit classes was that I had a broader understanding of what "literature" actually means.

Enter David Gilmour.

Yesterday, Hazlitt posted an interview with the author; it was a tour of his bookshelf, the one in his University of Toronto office. Gilmour, who teaches English and cultural studies at Victoria College, was being interviewed as a teacher and a writer; his novel, Extraordinary, has recently been long-listed for the Giller Prize.

As an interview subject, Gilmour was exceptional: lauding Proust one moment, then telling his interviewer that he only teaches "guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth." Roth, he explains, necessitates a late-semester introduction, because, you know, scenes of middle-aged men eating menstrual pads require worldlier students. "I save it ’til the very end of the year because by that point they’ve got fairly strong stomachs, and they’re far more sophisticated than they are in the beginning. So they can understand the differences between pornography and great literature." So sayeth Gilmour, who is also no great fan of women writers, Canadian writers, Chinese writers, and men who aren't strapping lumberjack-ish men—Proust aside, of course.

I never had the pleasure of sitting in a Gilmour classroom, although I did encounter my fair share of shoddy teachers at my alma mater. And he's since gone on record as saying his words were taken "out of context," that the interview was second on his mind to a conversation he was simultaneously having with a colleague (that started after the interview began), and that he teaches big, muscular writers because he identifies with them the most. (For what it's worth, Hazlitt's transcript holds up just fine in the face of Gilmour's blustery non-apology.)

The whole thing reads like a slick parody of dude-writer culture: from the women-don't-matter dismissal, to the pricky middle-aged sexuality, to the odd specificity of not teaching Chinese writers (are Japanese writers okay, Gilmour? How about Thai authors?), to the monomaniac belief that one's own worldview is the only one that could possibly matter.

I know that writers need healthy levels of self-confidence and self-belief in order to succeed. To this end, Gilmour is fine, if utterly obnoxious. If he wants to immerse himself in a literary culture that's a warm, wooly, just-like-me blanket, he can go right ahead. Never having read any Gilmour, I can't tell you if the effect of reading his library creates sparkling innovative, or derivative same-old.

But inflicting that same culture on his students is irresponsible. He says he can only teach authors that he loves, and he happens to love mostly male writers. ("Not my fault, bro! They speak to me!") But I don't think he's trying hard enough. As an instructor, he may feel most comfortable talking about books he likes, written by men he wants to emulate, featuring characters he identifies with. But teach those, and those alone? Laziness. Solipsism. Shameful.

Worse, it reinforces the notion that dude-writers (and by extension, dudes) are the only types that matter. When we repeatedly see, in media and academia, a narrow representation of existence, we assume that things outside that narrow slice are somehow not-good, or defective, or worthy of dismissal. See: size-ten women; women of colour; queer people of both genders; trans people of both genders; old people; immigrants; overly sexual women; asexual women; unattractive people; and people living unusual, non-rat-racy lives. Part of me understands what Gilmour is saying. It can be difficult to identify with people who are different from us. But that's how literature works: it connects us to people who aren't like us, and lifts us to a place of common understanding. How low-reaching do you have to be to only want to appreciate folks who are just like you?

When I was in school, my Contemporary American Literature class could have been populated with Roth, Emore Leonard, F. Scott Fitgerald—all of whom are name-checked by Gilmour as being particularly impressive—but instead was thick with unusual choices. The Book of Salt, by Vietnamese-American writer Monique Truong; "America," by queer poet Allen Ginsberg; Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a deeply troubling short film about the singer "performed" by Barbie dolls; and many more. The literary landscape we worked through was varied and challenging, and my professor was knowledgeable about their various forms, authors, and influences. It was a difficult class to pass, since the writing was challenging and the focus was kaleidoscopic. But I still think of that as being one of the best, and most comprehensive, moments in my education. By exposing myself to a rich, varied, and unfamiliar territory, I became a better writer, a better student, and a better human. Perhaps Gilmour should check that class out. After all, it's just down the hall.