Narrowness, curiosity, and the Gilmour Effect

September 26, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

David_Gilmour“When that review came out,” David Gilmour told National Post books editor Mark Medley in 2011, referring to a review of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel A Perfect Night to Go to China, “I went out looking for him.” The “him” in question was novelist and critic André Alexis, who had given Gilmour’s novel a less-than-stellar write-up. “I thought, ‘I’m going to beat the living shit out of this guy, and I don’t give a fuck what happens – this guy is going down.’ Because I know that that is a piece of personal vitriol. China was a beautiful book. Nobody but a guy who had a chip on his shoulder, or had some problem with chicks or something, would come after me for this book.”

Flash forward two years and one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Gilmour, not Alexis, who has “some problem with chicks.” On Wednesday, the Twittersphere was set alight by an installment of Emily M. Keeler’s “Shelf Esteem” series, which appears on the Random House blog Hazlitt. The series involves Keeler interviewing writers, editors, and other literary personalities about the contents of their personal bookshelves. In the course of interviewing Gilmour – whose latest novel, Extraordinary, has been longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize – Keeler noted the author did not have many books by women in his collection. Gilmour, who teaches literature to first- and third-year students at the University of Toronto, responded thusly:

I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and 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 teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Gilmour explains that he teaches Miller and Roth as a means of distinguishing between pornography and literature (fair enough), then concludes, “I teach only the best.” The clear implication is that “the best” does not, in Gilmour’s opinion, include “books by women” (other than Woolf), books by Canadians, or – bizarrely – books by Chinese authors. (Gilmour later claimed this was meant as a joke: I confess I don’t get it.)

We can argue about what constitutes “the best”: Gilmour identifies Proust, Tolstoy, and Chekhov as the high-water marks of literature, and you’d be hard pressed to find too many serious scholars who would disagree. However, by ignoring women, he is erasing from consideration such canonical writers as Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Lady Murasaki, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Edna O’Brien, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, and Isak Dinesen. By ignoring Canadians (he claims to admire Munro), he is eliding Atwood, Gallant, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Sheila Watson, Norman Levine, Adele Wiseman, Hubert Aquin, Robert Kroetsch, Leon Rooke, Austin Clarke, and Marian Engel. And by ignoring Chinese writers, he is missing out on Mo Yan, Eileen Chang, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, and Wang Xiaobo.

What is notable about these lists is how diverse the authors are in terms of style, themes, and subject matter. The most distressing thing about Gilmour’s approach to literature – especially as a teacher – is how narrow it is. Like David Shields, Gilmour seems interested only in writing that reflects his own experience back to him: “I’m a middle-aged writer and I’m very interested in the middle-aged writer’s experience,” he told Medley in a follow-up interview addressing the controversy that had sprung up around the Hazlitt piece. “I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body.”

Notwithstanding this protestation, Gilmour refuses to refer to Keeler by name, or even to allow her the designation of “reporter” or “interviewer,” instead repeatedly calling her “this young woman” and suggesting her motivation was “to make a little name for herself.” He also says that he was only paying her partial attention during the interview, distracted as he was by a conversation he was carrying on simultaneously, in French, with a (male) colleague: “I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” These remarks certainly testify to a streak of unexamined sexism, but I leave it to others to pursue this line of argument.

Here’s the thing: I like Gilmour’s novels. I liked A Perfect Night to Go to China, I liked Sparrow Nights and An Affair with the Moon and The Perfect Order of Things. I haven’t read Extraordinary yet, but I probably will. I do not agree with Scott Carter’s suggestion that you must be in sympathy with an author’s character or ideologies to appreciate his work. And I have in the past admired Gilmour’s damn-the-torpedoes willingness to say what he thinks and not care whether people like it or not. (When he told Medley in 2011, “Writers don’t wish each other well. They wish each other death and failure,” I couldn’t help but suppose that, on one level, he was absolutely right.) And if, as a personal choice, Gilmour decides he’d rather not read books by women, or Chinese or homosexual writers, that is his prerogative.

But Gilmour is – adamantly and proudly – a university lecturer, charged with forming young minds and forging young sensibilities. This is a large responsibility, and anyone who undertakes it should be intellectually curious enough to at least remain open to the possibility of being surprised by a work of literature that exists outside his usual tastes or reading habits. If nothing else, in order to remain cognizant of the landscape of his chosen subject matter, it would behoove Gilmour to expose himself to the broadest possible array of writers, and to the possibility that what constitutes “the best” in literature doesn’t always equate with “what best reflects my life as I have come to understand it.”

In any event, saying one doesn’t like books by women is somewhat akin to saying one doesn’t like music: the category is so large, so diverse, so heterogeneous, that to paint it all with the same brush is virtually impossible. Willa Cather has as much in common with Renata Adler as Elmore Leonard has with James Joyce. And although, as Jared Bland points out, the Western canon is dominated by dead white men, it is nevertheless possible to admit women authors to the ranks of “the best” without sacrificing any standards of quality or importance. Ask English lit scholars what the finest novel in the language is, and a good number of them might say Middlemarch (nor do you have to enjoy it to recognize its inherent quality – trust me on this one). And there are those (myself included) who would argue that the first novel – Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, which remains in print to this day – was written by a woman, some 600 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote.

Gilmour claims he doesn’t teach women writers because he doesn’t feel “passionately” about them, or about their books, and those who wish to be exposed to these works can go “down the hall.” But it seems odd that someone like Gilmour – a novelist and teacher – who can be assumed to maintain an abiding interest in the human experience in all its forms, should not be able to find among women writers more than one short story by Virginia Woolf that he is able to care passionately about. This seems to indicate a lack of openness on the part of the reader, not a lack of quality or variety among writers. And after all, isn’t one of literature’s functions to expose its recipients to ideas, experiences, and perspectives that are foreign to their own?

It is this narrowness, this blinkered idea of what qualifies as most worthy of our attention, that is troublesome. This is something that, as Canadian novelist Amanda Leduc (yes, she has two strikes against her) points out, is shared by our award culture, which tends to crowd out different voices and approaches in the process of anointing “unknown stories” told in “familiar ways.” In this sense, the Giller Effect and the Gilmour Effect are not all that far removed.

Given the tenor of Gilmour’s comments, it is appropriate to give a woman the last word. Here’s Leduc:

I love books. I believe in books. More importantly, I believe in the fact that books have long lives that transcend any kind of initial attention. And I agree with Gilmour when he says, in the Hazlitt article, that “the shadows on the pages move around” in great literature. Truly good books always do that – you notice different things your second and third and even fourth time around. Great art is never static.

But what happens when the view of great art itself becomes the thing that does not change? As a result of his refusal to read anything by women (or by writers who are Chinese, or Canadian, or whatever), does David Gilmour then, in essence, make himself into that Andy Warhol painting that looks the same on every view? Essentially he’s telling us the same story, here, that we heard in the article in 2011. It’s just a little more pointed, a little more specific. (And backed, apparently, by the University of Toronto.)