Over the past week or so, there’s been quite the kerfuffle in the Canadian literary scene over some person named David Gilmour, who has apparently written some books and teaches part time at the University of Toronto.
I read his interview, in which he made some absurd comments about not liking any women authors enough to teach them in his class–with the single exception of Virginia Woolf (the exact quote, “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,” has even given rise to an amusing tumblr that yielded me a good few chuckles). Gilmour also hasn’t encountered any Canadian writers he loves enough to teach (I fully expect Margaret Atwood has been crying buckets since she heard the devastating news*).
He evidently teaches books by “serious heterosexual guys”. “Real guy-guys” in fact. All of which sounds amusingly pompous and absurd to me. As in: are we still really taking someone who utters these kinds of throwbacks to some early twentieth century version of literary machismo seriously?
But in due course, teh interwebz erupted with outrage. People felt this was a reflection of white male entitlement in the English establishment. Profs from the same institution denounced Gilmour’s statements with anger and contempt.
And I kind of don’t get it.
I mean, I get it. It’s the issue of canon, of being concerned about the uneven playing field and the silencing of women’s voices that arose at a paradigmatic level because women’s writings were taken less seriously and were not chosen as part of the Great Works or included on reading lists, back in the day. The sacred Canon of English Literature was imbalanced, not just at the stage of creation (more men than women writing and publishing) but also at the subsequent stage of curation (women’s works not being chosen to be taught or anthologized etc.).
But at this point, the reality is that we’re generally deeply conscious of those inherent biases, and the process of trying to mitigate for that skew is ongoing. I frankly don’t think that the occasional blowhard really makes a big difference to that process, nor is necessarily indicative of any larger trend or hidden bias.
When I was completing my English degree, I found that the vast majority of my profs were interesting, intelligent and meticulous thinkers who challenged me to dig deeper, to root out nuance and search out the rewarding insights buried in the works we studied. But there was also the inevitable ageing rock star type of prof who would stride into class and put on a two hour performance, which always included some proportion of statements made for effect, to stir up controversy and get students riled up. I never felt that such pronouncements were actually anything to worry about. They were just the declarations of a slightly pompous narcissist who liked to court the limelight and whom few people took seriously–a little like that annoying relative who gets drunk at family gatherings and says idiotic things that prompt people to roll their eyes.
And, contrary to what so many concerned people seem to fear about impressionable young minds and profs being in positions of authority, most people I’ve known in first or second year university have the discernment to recognize a windbag when they hear one, though many might still take the class for its entertainment value. BS detectors get installed at a pretty young age in this society.
And so, though Gilmour’s silliness gave me a bit of a laugh–I admit that I’ll have some trouble taking his work seriously after this, though if it’s a good read, I’ll give it its due–I don’t see why everyone’s so hot under the collar. As an admitted feminist and a woman writer of the sort whose work I fully expect he will never love enough to teach, I nonetheless don’t have any stake in what this man has to say about women writers. I don’t need his acceptance in order to keep writing.
Then again, as someone who writes romance and speculative fiction, I suppose I’m not really aspiring to the Canon and to acceptance by the literary lights in the first place. I’m rather used to being marginalized in those circles, not the least by some of my well-read, feminist friends, who dismiss my writing and decline to read it because it’s romance, or spec fic, and therefore not up to snuff. I’ve seen that shutter fall into place, that flutter of eyelids, signalling a cool dismissal of anything that has the whiff of genre about it.
I don’t mind. I’m not the one at the table who has pre-decided and written off a vast oeuvre of writing, some of it quite wonderful and some of it admittedly mediocre or worse, simply because it’s outside of what they’ve deemed is an acceptable standard. (Aside: though at least with romance, even mediocre often gives rise to eminently skimmable, page-turning prose. By contrast, there’s no mediocre quite as tedious as mediocre literary writing, or so I find: the plodding, functional prose; the characters swamped by a passive disinterest in the world; the endlessly meticulous description of mundane details of daily routines that rarely resolve into actual plot points; the mannered voice couched in present tense. Mediocrity comes in all forms–just ask Salieri).
I don’t push it with those friends, because I write my books to entertain. If it’s not your kind of book, and you feel it therefore won’t entertain, by whatever criteria you set for that, then go forth in this world, curl up with the kind of book you love, and be happy. I’m not trying to please all the people.
Here is what it comes down to for me: long before my books went “out there”, to be ignored by the David Gilmores of the world, I was writing for the love of it. That will continue. The End.
*BTW, here is what Margaret Atwood actually had to say about the whole business. I ultimately agree. And of course, I found the whole tempest in a teapot incident even funnier when I learned that she is one of the jurors for the uber prestigious Giller Prize, for which Gilmour is a nominee.