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.)

Scenes from a life

September 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Perfect Order of Things. David Gilmour; $27.95 cloth 978-0-88762-807-8, 228 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers

It may be a function of reaching a certain age that prompts men to look back on their past achievements with a kind of combined wistfulness and aggrandizement. Bruce Springsteen was only thirty-five when he noticed his glory days slipping away “in the wink of a young girl’s eye;” in Canada, we tend to wait a bit longer before taking the measure of lost youth. This season, no fewer than three big novels adopt the mantle of fictionalized autobiographies to dramatize their authors’ experiences and highlight the distances they have travelled – geographically and emotionally – over the course of a lifetime.

Michael Ondaatje has denied that the child in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, bears any resemblance to his creator. That child, nicknamed Mynah, boards a ship from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) bound for England; it is worth noting that his creator embarked on a similar voyage as a boy. It is also worth noting that Mynah’s real name is Michael, and the character in the book ends up leaving his adopted country of England for Canada, where he becomes a writer.

Dany Laferrière, meanwhile, fled his homeland of Haiti some thirty-five years ago after a friend and colleague was killed under the repressive regime of Baby Doc Duvalier. Laferrière resettled in Montreal, where he has lived in self-imposed exile ever since. His latest novel in English, The Return, tells the story of a Haitian-born writer living in Montreal who travels back to his homeland after learning of his father’s death.

David Gilmour’s new novel, his seventh, is perhaps the most transparently autobiographical of the three, but then Gilmour has always been an autobiographical writer, mining his own life and experiences for material in much the same way Philip Roth does. In The Perfect Order of Things, the narrator acknowledges that the impulse to look back and take the measure of a life is prompted in no small part by a recognition of mortality. At the start of the novel, the narrator sets out the book’s conceit: he will revisit key moments in his past in an attempt to notice all the things he missed at the time due to heightened emotions, misery, or simple self-absorption. By the book’s final chapter, entitled “The Big Circle,” the narrator, now in his sixties, finally realizes what the true nature of his project is: “what I’m doing is getting ready to die.” Recalling Montaigne’s idea that the goal of philosophy is to learn how to die properly, the narrator accedes to the notion that he has reached the late autumn of his life: “It’s not a morbid thought. I’m not talking about next week or next year. I’m simply saying that my boat is gradually turning toward harbour.”

The eventual demise of the narrator, seen in soft-focus over the horizon, is not the only time death encroaches on the novel; it is, however, the most peaceful and recondite. The narrator’s friend, Justin Strawbridge (a character who will be recognizable to readers familiar with Gilmour’s 1993 novel An Affair with the Moon), commits a murder that is startling in its violence, and the narrator’s father, suffering the onset of dementia, commits suicide. This latter sequence, dramatized early in the novel, occasions some of Gilmour’s most heartfelt writing:

Sometimes I wonder if my father, as he swept the gun up and placed the barrel to his temple, had, in the moment before he squeezed the trigger and the bullet knocked him onto the floor, second thoughts. Did he think it would hurt? Did he think about me? Could he see the ceiling of the kitchen when he hit the floor? Did he know, lying there, that he was dying? Did he regret it? Do you go on dreaming when you die like that, the images moving further and further and further away? Is that what he thought at the very last second: This is the perfect order of things.

The novel’s repeated insistence on death should not make the book sound overly dour; to the contrary, Gilmour’s picaresque autobiography-manqué is a celebration of life. If death is acknowledged, it is only because it is an inevitable part of living. Indeed, many of Gilmour’s readers fail to acknowledge (perhaps because humour is so personal and individual) how funny the man can be; The Perfect Order of Things contains moments liable to make a reader laugh out loud. Gilmour’s four-line summation of Anna Karenina, for example, is hilarious in both its economy and its accuracy. (No, I shan’t reproduce it here: you’ll have to search it out for yourself.)

That four-line précis is included in a chapter that is ever so slightly adapted from Gilmour’s award-winning Walrus article about the joys of discovering Tolstoy for the first time as an adult. The chapter, “My Life with Tolstoy,” is thoroughly entertaining: at once funny, moving, and erudite. But it’s impossible to ignore a sense that it is out of place in the context of Gilmour’s novel. Other similar chapters, on the author’s interview with George Harrison and his book tour for his memoir, The Film Club, contain material that likewise feels ultra vires. This is a danger inherent in Gilmour’s chosen form: by so insistently inserting his own life into the work, and by cutting up the narrative into ten (more or less) self-contained chapters, the author blurs the line between fiction and autobiography to such an extent that the so-called fourth wall is all but obliterated. The trade-off is that the fictional elements in the novel appear intermittent; the book feels as though it is constantly dropping in and out of a consistent narrative.

Much of this is intentional and, as Michel Basilières pointed out in his review of the book, has more in common with a European tradition than what we are used to here in North America. Nevertheless, readers who agree with John Gardner that for a novel to be effective, the fictional dream it creates “must probably be vivid and continuous” will in all likelihood come away from Gilmour’s novel disappointed. Those familiar with Gilmour’s oeuvre will find characters and scenes from earlier books repurposed here; this postmodern metatextual aspect will be inviting or alienating depending upon the reader’s temperament.

What is undeniable, however, is Gilmour’s seemingly effortless facility at turning a sentence, his searing honesty and self-awareness (however harsh the narrator can be in his assessments of others, he saves all the nastiest barbs for himself), and his incisive eye for cultural worth (Gilmour is someone who recognizes the value distinction between Proust and Tolstoy on the one hand, and our sadly denuded, celebrity-driven culture on the other).

Life, said Kierkegaard, can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. Gilmour’s novel, in all its messiness, is a testament to a well-lived life, and the understanding that comes with a certain age.

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?