“I’m an egotist, but I’m not selfish. There’s a difference. I’m a neurotic, I guess. I can’t stop thinking about myself. It isn’t that I think myself so important… I simply can’t think about anything else, that’s all. If I could fall in love with a woman that might help some. But I can’t find a woman who interests me.” (Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer)
Almost a week after David Gilmour embarrassed himself and became infamous in an interview with Hazlitt, Random House’s online literary magazine, it seems as though everyone has weighed in on his sexist and racist literary tastes. “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys, Henry Miller. Philip Roth. […] I teach only the best.” On top of the many (well deserved) criticisms Gilmour has earned for these comments as well as his explanation that “when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, no one of those happen to be Chinese, or women,” many people have rightfully questioned his pedagogical thinking and what exactly qualifies him for his enviable position as an instructor at the University of Toronto. Gilmour’s arrogant remarks made a lot of us mad, and for a lot of good reasons. But now that all of the “rage blogs” have been posted, I’d like to look at the lessons we can learn from this fiasco and the productive questions it confronts us with.
Gilmour Girls. Wait, no. Sorry. I meant: Gilmour: Pictured with a very manly bookshelf. No girls allowed.
Image: Random House Canada
It’s important at this moment to reflect on these questions before we all forget we ever knew anything about David Gilmour or his bookshelves. The initial reactions to Gilmour have been variously critical, insightful, and angry, but they have mostly taken arms against Gilmour. They set out to show that Gilmour is an arrogant, sexist, and racist a-hole. Congratulations, I think we’ve won that battle. But this approach to the controversy misleads us: no one is on the other side of this issue. I mean, except for Margaret Wente, but she’s hardly a worthy adversary. And here’s one of the unseen dangers in this sensational story: it’s so easy to get caught up in the communal righteousness of an easy kill, to focus on the outrageousness of Gilmour’s outrageous statements, that we forget to consider some of the really interesting questions that his comments and our reactions to them pose. If we want to win the war, we’re going to have to think a bit more (seriously) about what David Gilmour loves to read and teach.
My own position on this controversy is not unbiased. The Gilmour interview touched upon many issues that I am personally invested in. I am a woman who has been studying literature in universities for a decade. I am also a teaching assistant, an instructor, and sometimes a mentor to undergraduate students. I am a PhD candidate facing an increasingly limited job market. I am the editor of an online literary review that just published an issue dedicated to women’s writing in an attempt to help overcome a noted gender bias in Canadian review culture. I am also a feminist. And, most fundamentally, I am a reader. My thoughts on Gilmour have varied as each of my many positions have competed for attention in my analysis of the situation. But right now I want to limit my comments to one question that I feel deserves more attention than it has yet received: why do we read? Oh, and do our literary tastes say anything about what kind of reader we are?
Wente argues that Gilmour offers a course that actually allows students to read texts that have been marginalized by initiatives that privilege writing by historically marginalized groups, such as women. In fact, she notes her surprise that “there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more).” Although Wente’s picture of the sexual politics of a university is offensively misinformed, when I’m feeling patient and forgiving, I take her larger point that “guy-guys” writers still need a place in the university. (Of course, as my own experiences constantly remind me, “guy-guys” still have a prominent place in literature departments and scholarship. Contrary to what Wente claims, you can still find professors willing to teach Ernest Hemingway. In other words, I don’t think anyone is on the other side of that issue either.)
My fear is that by focusing on the arrogance and privilege of Gilmour’s statements (I’m reminded of another quotation from Tropic of Cancer: “Seated in my little niche all the poisons which the world gives off each day pass through my hands. Not even a finger-nail gets stained. I am absolutely immune”), we avoid talking about why reading is important. It’s a question that I’m always thinking about. I’ve committed a third of my life to reading books and teaching people about reading. I think it is a valuable and important commitment, but I don’t always know why.
I learned to read in university. By that I mean I learned the rules of engagement: the active and difficult work that reading takes; the “deep attention” that a sustained reading of any text requires; and the frustrating, enlightening, transformative experience of coming to terms with the fact that, as David Gilmour tells us, “literature organically moves, and it never stays still,” so in other words – you may come to a conclusion in your reading, but you’ll never come to an end. In fact, I learned that what makes “great literature” has a lot to do with how you read it (and here I disagree wholeheartedly with Gilmour who seems to blame only the text and never the reader). Roland Barthes, a French theorist of the mid-century, believed that there are readerly texts, those texts that Gilmour claims “give up all [their] secrets the first time,” and that there are writerly texts, texts that are incomplete, difficult, and require a reader’s active participation in the creation of meaning. Inspired by Barthes, I like to say that there are readerly readers and writerly readers. There are readers who will avoid the challenges of reading, of that confrontation with something that you don’t understand but must nonetheless participate in, and there are readers who will work through a text always knowing that whatever meaning they create will be challenged and changed. All of this is to say that a text can only be as good as its reader. At university, we teach students to be writerly readers. We teach them to find reward in the intellectual activity of confronting something they don’t understand; we teach them to get comfortable with their vulnerability in the face of texts that challenge rather than reiterate their own values; and we hope they will continue to read in this way long after they’ve left the demanding and transformative literature classroom.
Some of the best criticisms of Gilmour have addressed his irresponsibility as a teacher in not teaching women writers. They’ve also rightfully called out U of T for letting Gilmour get away with teaching courses that are uncritically centred on the books he loves. As Christine Sismondo nicely put it, “It’s not at all unusual for people to want to teach only the things they like, but, generally speaking, it is unusual for them to get what they want.” I read almost all of the authors Gilmour loves during my undergraduate at Western (Philip Roth didn’t make the cut). I also read Virgina Woolf (in first, second, and third year!), Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelley, and so many more. I guess you could say I took, among others, the “classes down the hall” (where Gilmour helpfully suggested students wishing to read those authors could go). I can imagine a class in which Gilmour teaches writerly reading by teaching Henry Miller; I’ve been in a course like that and the professor became my mentor and inspired much of my graduate work. I’ve never been taught by Gilmour so I don’t know how he teaches these texts – and at least one of his students wants to defend him as teacher – but, even though he’s a writer, I don’t think there’s much evidence that he’s a skilled writerly reader himself. Holger Syme makes a similar argument in his blog post, here.
In an impressively frustrating statement, the University of Toronto made its position on the matter official, if not clear: “One might hope that, in a university environment, teachers would encourage respectful airing of differences of opinion, and that, by airing their own views in a respectful way, they would encourage students to examine critically their own beliefs as well as those of their teachers and classmates.” (It’s notably hard here to discern whether the university is reprimanding Gilmour for dismissing students’ questions about his syllabus or Syme’s very public dismissal of Gilmour – “David Gilmour is not a colleague of mine”) . I strongly agree with U of T’s statement, even in its ambiguities: universities, like books, are spaces in which we confront strikingly different ideas, where we come to know but not rest upon our opinions and those of others. For these reasons it is essential that we teach students how to read texts that do not merely recapitulate our own values, experiences, and desires.
There is some accounting for taste. Taste, like manners, is culturally shaped and maintained. And university professors (like book reviewers) have a lot of influence over their students’ taste. Although teaching taste is not their pedagogical objective, university professors often leave their greatest impact on our literary tastes. (Once a student asked me how to tell when a poem was “good,” because she was confused by her professor’s over-the-top admiration for the poetry he was teaching. The best answer I could give her was to say that part of her undergraduate education was the development of taste, of being able to recognize what is “good” – I prefer to say “interesting” or “challenging” myself – about literature). When Gilmour strengthens the stomachs of his students by exposing them to shocking sexual escapades in Philip Roth, for example, he also shapes their taste. But taste has a way of excusing us for falling back on our passive, readerly reading habits, even when we’re reading the classics. So here is another question that I think we haven’t really answered yet: what role does taste play in education?
I approach these difficult questions – why do we read and what role does taste play in education – the way I approach the novels I read, with that writerly vulnerability I learned during my undergrad. I think it’s time to close the book on David Gilmour, but let’s leave these questions open.
And, because there are so many important and good criticisms of Gilmour that I couldn’t account for here, here are some cool things to check out if you’re interested:
Erin Wunker, representing Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, on the prevalence of sexism in Canadian literary culture
Jana Smith Elford in Hook and Eye on collective action
Jared Bland’s eloquent meditation on university reading in The Globe and Mail
Plus, if you want to know more about the gender bias in Canadian review culture, definitely visit (and support!) Canadian Women in the Literary Arts
You may also want to check out: