The Real Problem With David Gilmour

Copyright © by Anthony Zanetti, 10/3/13


  Lit World nonsense has caught my eye for the past few days as I’ve scanned social media and the news. A few ill-considered remarks in a fluff piece on novelist David Gilmour for Hazlitt Magazine went viral on social media and resulted in attention in several major publications both inside of Canada and beyond. Gilmour, an instructor at the University of Toronto, was taken to task by users on social media services like Twitter, while the Acting Chair of the English Department (with whom Gilmour is not actually affiliated, as a non-tenure track instructor hired by one of the U of T’s colleges) subsequently circulated a letter to the faculty stating that Gilmour’s comments “constitute a travesty of all we stand for.”

  Here is an except from the interview which captures the offending content:

  I teach modern short fiction to third and first-year students. So 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.

  The bits that refer to the gender, ethnicity and sexuality of the writers Gilmour chooses or doesn’t choose to teach are obviously the source of the controversy—among the more conventional minds on the Left who are ‘offended.’ Gilmour repeatedly refers to ‘love’ when describing whether he selects a given book or author for his course; his later remark that “I teach only the best” results in a conflation of his own personal literary favourites with artistic quality. So not only does it appear that he shuts out women, gays and visible minorities, but that he flat out thinks they aren’t any good artistically.

  Gilmour’s perceived diss of non-male, non-white and non-heterosexual writers is easily dismissed given how absurd such a notion is – there is more than enough great and excellent art by artists who aren’t white, male and straight to disprove such a laughable notion. That Virginia Woolf is his lone example of excellent writing by a female writer is enough to bring his critical thinking skills into question, given that she is a dull and greatly over-rated prosist. Also, few have remarked that in his list of preferred Dead White Males, the quality varies wildly once you look beyond the brand name value of the assorted male writers he champions—he seems to approve of Roth and Miller merely for their ability to ‘shock’ some with sexual content. Gilmour has clearly latched onto famous literary names from the past and has put little thought into the quality of the material on the actual page—typical, but always unfortunate to see in someone who has been given the opportunity to teach.

  In terms of his own private preferences, he is welcome to have them, as delimited and foolish as they are. The problem is that such a limited perspective would be allowed to infect younger minds in the classroom. I’m unclear as to why someone who is only able to teach ‘what they love’ would be allowed to teach a class in the arts at the university level. Whether one likes or does not like a given artwork or artist is irrelevant when it comes to a more serious study of the arts, and it is in a place such as a university where students should acquire the skills to think beyond the knee-jerk emotional reactions towards the arts that are typical of the general population.

  The real issue is not that Gilmour is sexist, racist and homophobic, but that academia perpetuates the dumbing down of culture by hiring such a person as an instructor in the first place. This is due to the fact that the modern university likes to employ mediocre writers to teach, often in “Creative Writing” courses, though also, as in this case, to teach courses on literature. Gilmour himself remarked in the interview that he is an atypical candidate to teach literature at a university:

  “I got this job six or seven years ago, usually the University of Toronto doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate. You have to have a doctorate to teach here, but they asked if I would teach a course, and I said I would. I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students. It’s the same thing. And my book The Film Club is about teaching my son about life and the world through film.”

  The reason he bypassed the usual academic credentials is because he’s an award winning novelist, and because in the current literary culture, various literary prizes and/or ‘fame’ can serve as a de facto ‘credential’ to teach. This was noted in an earlier National Post piece on Gilmour:

  “It’s a f–ing dream,” he says. “You write a book about your son dropping out of school and they give you a professorship at U of T. How cool is that?”

  This isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the literary system. You can observe these hiring practices in academia by parsing the CVs of various Creative Writing or MFA instructors, who must accumulate prizes as well as publication credits in order to secure a teaching post. Given that Gilmour won a well-known literary prize in Canada (The Governor General’s Award for English Fiction), this helps give his name some weight when selling him & his course to undergraduates. In turn, the university teaching gig lends the writer prestige and a patina of ‘legitimacy.’ The university cashes in, and the writer/artist secures a middle-class income. It is the students who pay.

  Politically correct academia has been swift to condemn Gilmour for his remarks even as it is ultimately responsible for perpetuating this kind of fraudulent education in the arts. Gilmour’s thoughtless remarks may affect his teaching career, but the root issues will remain unaddressed. There are frequent articles about the poor market PhD’s must face once completing their studies, and it is unfortunate that someone better equipped to teach students beyond their own personal ‘likes’ in the arts lost out to a minor ‘name’ on the Canadian Literary circuit. But then, when a university is so casual about letting instructors teach ‘only what they love’ to begin with, it’s clear that business has taken priority over actual learning in the arts.


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