This week David Gilmour made a fool of himself and the institution that employs him by confessing to Hazlitt magazine: "I'm not interested in teaching books by women."
While the interview contains enough bigotry (Gilmour also doesn't like or teach Chinese writers, queer writers, or Canadian writers) and contradictions (Gilmour likes Virginia Woolf but won't teach her because she's too sophisticated for undergraduate students) to spend ample time, certainly more than 1,000 words, dissecting, for now I will focus exclusively on his blatant dismissal of women as authors.
As a woman writer I was not shocked by what Gilmour said, such views of women writers have been insidiously glossed over yet ever-present in the literary world. What shocked me was that Gilmour actually 'fessed up to his own literary biases. While it is easy to claim that Gilmour is an exception, that he is a terrible and narcissistic individual and should face consequences individually, Gilmour's views fall strikingly in line with the historical and ongoing antipathy toward women writers.
According to reports from the VIDA Women in Literary Arts writing by women accounts for only one-third of what gets reviewed by major literary publications. Notable responses to this include numerous panels, special issues in magazines or anthologies, and the inclusion of a few token names on academic syllabi to create space for women. But these responses too are problematic. To acknowledge oneself as "other" necessarily enters one's discourse into a politicized domain and creates a context that prioritizes the text as a tool. This evades the project of transcending gender difference and makes work subject to be read as an answering back to historical misogyny instead of a stand-alone piece.
How can a piece of writing be its own default when it is entered into a world that has already rejected it or placed it in lesser genres, and accepted it on grounds of its own subjugation? It simply cannot. So the work becomes self-annihilating -- the woman writes as woman and the writing is then necessarily gendered and therefore rejected on the grounds of historically patriarchal processes of literary validation (the kinds of reviews one gets, where one is reviewed, how one is read and by whom), or accepted as its own genre, the work of "woman writer," which prefaces and in a way delegitimizes the work as one that can stand up to the broader literary canon of predominantly male works that have come before. Therefore there is both a need for the space created by such specialized anthologies/collections and a failing on the part of these publications as an adequate solution to the larger problems faced in an implicitly gendered world.
I think Margaret Atwood, an author included amongst the many that Gilmour will not teach and possibly Can-Lit's most public face for female authorship, encapsulated the paradox best in her statement to The Paris Review: "No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone."
The English lexicon has been dominated by privileged men, generally white men, writing from the perspective and experience of their privileged circumstance. The way these men throughout history have created the conditions for codes of allowances with regards to speech has inevitably given birth to the great literary canon and established the criteria through whereby society valorizes and discredits art. For years the resources made available within each era dictated the work intellectuals held up as revolutionary and beautiful. During the birth of the manuscript, upper-class men were literate and educated, while women were rendered quiet, confined to the domestic sphere, and effectively banished from the world of literature. Simplistic stylistic choices we often take for granted -- from the shape of a conventional narrative to the way words themselves have evolved, the weight of terms and sounds -- are inevitably tied to this vast and long history of patriarchy which produced and refined our language.
When women began to write there was a definite pressure; these women were for the first time putting the discourse of female experience into a male-centric realm. The experience of being a woman does not rest solely on one's being a woman, just as the same is true for men. We are not only women. We are individuals -- and artists. The pressure to portray every single experience with the omnipotence of a narrator that goes beyond the page is a nearly impossible venture. Yet the pressure of being one of the few voices of our gender necessarily demanded that our words count for something more than a novel or a poem -- it demanded that they count for all of women, and hence, from the get-go, female writers were presented with a task that was impossible to deliver and ensured their own failure. They were writing against a nonexistent landscape, and many of the women who were granted this privilege were white, heteronormative, upper-class, and lived within the parameters of high society.
In The Second Sex, theorist Simone De Beauvoir posits, "women cannot be objectively defined." The lack of objectivity provided to female authors is due to the collective societal assumption of the white male as master through whom everyone else is othered -- the female author must necessarily battle against her (male) precursor's reading of her. Before a piece is written the female author needs to consider and adjust the creative process in accordance with how gender, be it hers or her characters', will be read. For these and other reasons -- because I have written and read and studied and been critiqued and looked into the past of other women authors who came before me -- I am not shocked by the contents of Gilmour's interview.
Even Woolf, who Gilmour finds "sophisticated," was discredited by academic Q.D. Leavis who, in her piece "Caterpillars of The Commonwealth Unite," says: "[Woolf is] not living in the contemporary world...insulated by class...self-indulgen[t]...annoying...a let-down for our sex."
What is most troubling is Gilmour's role as a professor. While at McGill I had the privilege of learning from professor and author Thomas Heise. Professor Heise introduced me to feminist theorists like Judith Butler and I owe him (partial) credit for my ongoing interest in feminist readings of literature. However, the most valuable lesson came from his first class where he said "literature is the unofficial history of the world." Literature conveys histories that, for various reasons, go unacknowledged in the public domain. Also, characters, stories, these things personalize history. Literature shows us individuals with whom we empathize and that empathy is emblematic of a radical shift in the self to be both more inwardly critical and outwardly inclusive of people whose experiences might not reflect our own.
Hence, if Gilmour is indeed refusing to teach literature by women, queer, Chinese, and Canadian authors, then he is actively excluding them from the history that he imparts to his students. I know Gilmour is not the only professor who abides by this mantra, and my fear for the future is that students are being denied the opportunity to learn from, be inspired by, and empathize with literature that doesn't fall under the white-hetero-male domain.
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