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Sep 25 2013

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women”

Then via PZ a brilliantly transgressive and original Canadian guy who writes novels and got a gig teaching novels at the University of Toronto despite no PhD. He talked to Emily M Keeler for a series she does for a website at Random House, nicely titled Hazlitt.

I’ve just moved, so my library at home is unfortunately in storage. A thousand, maybe twelve hundred books are in storage. The books here, this tends to be what I teach. These are, of course, the treasured Proust, one of my great joys is not only having read Proust but having read him twice, and having listened to the audio CD twice. There’s two versions, one’s 50 hours and one’s 150 hours. They’re both dazzling. I like volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s the most entertaining, it’s the funniest. It’s very, very funny about human vanity, particularly gay vanity.

But the photo under that shows the Random House edition of Proust, which of course is a translation. It’s a little odd to say you’ve “read Proust” just like that when you’ve read him only in translation. It’s not odd in casual conversation of course, but when you’re talking for publication and you teach at a university – well I would think you’d be aware that reading a translation isn’t just straightforwardly reading the author.

But that’s not the interesting bit.

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.

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.

So that’s who that is.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    Sercee

    If he’s having trouble finding a good modern writer to teach I’d suggest (who I thought would be obvious) Margaret Atwood, but seeing as she’s aboth Canadian and a woman… she’s on a very different level than he is.

    And “talking to a room of students is the same as talking to a camera”?
    This man should not be teaching anything to anybody.

  2. 2
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    I had a hard time getting into Margaret Atwood when I was younger. Her writing style just didn’t do it for me. But I was missing so many “Handmaids Tale” references that I finally just rented the audio book so I’d know what all the cool Internet Feminists were talking about! I put it on in the car on the way to school, ended up falling head over heels in love with it, and I wasn’t patient enough to listen to the tape to find out what happened, so I found a copy of the book and stayed up half the night finishing it off.

    Now I’m a huge Atwood fan, and can’t understand what Younger Me’s problem with her was. Go figure.

  3. 3
    fwtbc

    Ooh, thanks for the reminder. I’ve been waiting for the last MaddAddam book to come out, but had forgotten about it for a couple of months. I just looked and it’s out!

    I know what I’m reading next. :D

  4. 4
    Pierce R. Butler

    I would suggest Candace Jane Dorsey, but have no doubt she works far far beyond pseudo-Prof. Gilmour’s tiny little comfort zone.

  5. 5
    LykeX

    There’s this curious philosophy of literature that holds that the way to increase your understanding and appreciation of writing is to constantly expand your circle of reading and not be afraid to try reading new authors or genres.

    Maybe if he took that 150 hours he spent listening to a reading of a book he already read twice and instead spent them at the library browsing at random and actually reading new stuff, he might find some worthwhile authors. Maybe even a woman or two.

    I suspect we’ll never know.

  6. 6
    Minnow

    In faint mitigation, I think this may have been an interview style set up where the questions have been removed, in which case he may just have been responding to ‘why don’t you teach any women’ or something. I don’t know but it seems likely from the structure.

    Lots of fascinating women writers, obviously, but not Atwood for me. Never got the interest in her, although she does good titles.

  7. 7
    Minnow

    Am I commenting too much? I seem to have been thrown into moderation. Or have I offended someone?

  8. 8
    rq

    It’s rather sad, he keeps trying to excuse his words due to the fact that he wasn’t paying attention to the young woman conducting the interview, and was rather more focussed on trying to have a conversation with a Frenchman at the same time. That dismissive attitude towards an interview by a woman says a lot in and of itself…

  9. 9
    unity

    I’m inclined to be a little pragmatic here.

    If the guy genuinely doesn’t like or believes that he cannot relate to women authors then its probably for the best that he doesn’t teach them because he’ll only end up selling his students short if he were to try. The onus is then on the university to ensure that they provide alternative course options who don’t share the same pretensions and prejudices.

    Personally I wouldn’t want to be taught by the guy but that has less to do with his views on women authors and more to do with the fact that he comes across as an absolutely dreadful literary snob with a rather dim view of his students’ abilities.

    If Woolf is ‘too sophisticated’ for his third year students then he’s clearly failing to educate them to the requisite level of sophistication necessary to appreciate her work, although I suspect that it’s rather more the case that he has some very rigid and narrow views on the ‘correct’ way to interpret and understand the works of the authors he does teach and very little time for or tolerance of alternative opinions and viewpoints, which is just about the last thing I want to see in a University lecturer.

    Back when I was at university I got in to a few major headbanging sessions with a couple of my psychology lecturers over questioning and challenging some the ‘received wisdoms’ that were kicking around at the time but they were always fair enough to give me credit for arguing my case and being willing to ask awkward questions.

    I get the horrible feeling with this guy that that approach is pretty much a recipe for an ‘F’, which is not how a university education should be.

    As for my own views on women authors, a quick glance at just one of my bookshelves turns up books by Atwood, Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Joanna Russ and Pat Cadigan sitting happily alongside my collections of the works of Phil Dick, Michael Moorcock, Iain Banks and William Gibson, which is exactly how I like things, although it does appear that my daughter’s been at my books again as the Le Guin’s are missing… again.

  10. 10
    sarah00

    I know it’s a silly thing to pick on in such a wealth of idiocy, but I was really taken by his “treasured Proust” who he’s read a total of twice. I don’t know much abut Proust but I do know that most people who have “treasured” authors read them repeatedly, often annually or at least semi-regularly. I’ve got lots of books I’ve read twice that I wouldn’t call ‘treasured’ but I’ve also got a few that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read. They may not be at the intellectual level of Proust but it just seemed that he was saying this to impress, rather than as an honest comment on his favourite author. It’s like the people who leave “War and Peace” on the coffee table when they want to impress someone when they’re really reading “50 Shades of Gray”.

  11. 11
    AsqJames

    @rq,

    I followed your link…ugh!

    He needs to think about why he can’t mention the interviewer without referring to her as “this young woman”. Maybe I’m being unfair, but the attitude this conveys to me is one of disdain for her age and gender. Particularly with regard to her intelligence. Not a great attitude for a teacher who says most of his students are “girls”.

    And this in an interview where he bemoans being careless with his phrasing previously. Nice to see he’s being more careful now.

  12. 12
    sailor1031

    This guy is a real name dropper. Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy? Real guy-guys like Henry Miller & Philip Roth? You’re shittin’ me! Who reads Henry Miller these days? Or ever really read Tolstoy, apart from maybe Sergei Bondarchuk? Philip Roth? Give me a break. But at least we can see why this little dipstick doesn’t have a PhD – he’s too conceited to ever need one. Besides it’s possible he would have had to know a little about literature to get it.

    Maybe I can find my old Traveller’s Companion copy of “quiet days in Clichy” and read it to see if ther’s something deep and meaningful in there that certainly wasn’t there back in 1952….when it was only about shagging and being shagged in the suburbs of Paris….

    @Sarah00; if one read Proust once or twice a year one would have no time for any other reading. For most of us once (or less) is enough of Proust especially in french.

  13. 13
    sarah00

    @sailor1031
    I figured he’s a tough author but saying “he’s my favourite author, I’ve read him twice” just seemed a bit, um, pathetic, to me. As you say, I think it’s all about name dropping. I feel he thinks we’re going to say “Proust’s your favourite author? Wow, you’re amazing!”.

  14. 14
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    This interview makes me question the wisdom of the administration of the University of Toronto, frankly.

    Some of my children are considering grad programs in Canada (they were born in Canada). I’ll be passing this tidbit on. There are a lot of great universities in Canada, not just U of T.

  15. 15
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    P.S. (not suggesting that you were saying only this university is good in Canada, Ophelia….more my musing because one of my son’s current profs holds up U of T as the best possible choice and I was thinking out loud above that No, there are many other outstanding schools in Canada, U of T may have fallen prey to stupid decisions about hiring unqualified celebrity lecturers, and it is really important to pay attention to drivel like this!

  16. 16
    beelzebubba

    “none of them happen to be Chinese”

    Really? Chinese people have been writing for over 5,000 years, and this guy can’t find any good Chinese writers. Besides being a sexist asshole this guy is a racist asshole. He would never lump all European literature together like this, but Chinese literature is just as rich and diverse as European literature (but it is a lot older.)

  17. 17
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Roth has the best understanding of middle-aged sexuality I’ve ever come across.

    Because if there’s anything college students get excited about, it’s middle-aged sexuality.

    That interview rq links to is not helping Gilmour’s case.

    I don’t know if his characterization of his conversation with Margaret Atwood about Céline is accurate, but it’s worth mentioning that Céline is objectionable not because of some personal comments or aspects of his private life, but because he was a fascist. It’s funny, because when I read the Keeler piece yesterday I was thinking about themed syllabi for sociological lit courses, and imagining that in one of them I’d likely include some fascist authors. It’s important that students understand writing in a political sense, and that includes confronting writers who promote evil ideas – about specific groups or social relations or politics more generally – and who aren’t utterly talentless hacks.

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Minnow @7 – no, not at all. It was a technical thing (and I wasn’t around until now).

  19. 19
    Wojo

    I ding it interesting that David Gimour has a daughter who is a good Canadian writer. He wrote a positive review of her comparing her to Truman Capote. But since she is a woman and a Canadian, he wouldn’t dare consider her good.

    http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadawrites/2011/12/writer-to-watch-maggie-gilmour.html

  20. 20
    Ophelia Benson

    Well to be fair he did specify writers that he loves, and he did talk about it in terms of personal taste.

    But it’s still stupid, and worse, it’s still willfully ignorant. Willa Cather? The author of Genji known as Lady Murasaki? Austen? Emily Bronte? Atwood (another Canadian woman thus doubly unloved)? He can’t manage to love any of those? Then he’s not trying.

    And sometimes it does take an effort. But guess what: the effort pays off. HUGELY. Yet he, a novelist himself, apparently hasn’t figured that out.

  21. 21
    Raging Bee

    I’m not sure what to make of this guy. He sounds like a narrow-minded dismissive twit, but I will credit him with two things:

    First, he’s honest about his style, his range, and his limitations. It looks like UT knew what they were getting when they hired him; so if anyone is to be blamed here, perhaps it’s the UT administration.

    Second, he seemed to be stating his likes and dislikes as nothing more than what they were: personal biases. And everyone has those. There’s nothing about women being objectively inferior or unworthy, and no bloviating rationalizations about feminism or PC this or that — just a flat admission that his interests are limited. I’d be like that too if I was a teacher: put me at the head of a science-fiction class, and I’ll be talking about cyberpunks, Neil Stephenson, Dan Simmons, James Morgan, MZ Bradley, “Person of Interest,” “Firefly,” maybe the moralism of “Star Trek.” Heinlein will get very little mention, and Orson Scott Card won’t get even that.

    Toronto is a big city, so I’m guessing UT is a big college; so hopefully there will be other lit profs whose biases will offset this guy’s. If NOBODY in that department has any interest in women authors, then there’s a real problem.

  22. 22
    dianne

    He “apologizes” and his excuse is that he’s a writer and you can’t expect writers to use words well? I guess I shouldn’t bother reading his work because he clearly can’t choose words very well.

  23. 23
    LykeX

    To be fair, his point was that as a writer, you get to spend more time thinking about your choice of words and aren’t put on the spot the same way.

    Of course, he doesn’t appear to have done much better after thinking about it. He still managed to do a nice not-pology. Instead of apologizing for his own error, he apologized:

    …for hurting your sensibilities…

    Despite the surface admission that it was his own fault, he still managed to turn it around to imply that it was just other people being too thin-skinned. That was after he had a chance to think things over, so the previous excuse carries no weight.

    This isn’t about personal tastes or putting your foot in your mouth. This is about him being a bigoted, little shit, just like so many others. Until he proves otherwise, I don’t see why I should think anything else. If it smells like an asshole and farts like an asshole, chances are it’s an asshole.

  24. 24
    Anne Marie

    Wow. My mom once had a fun conversation with my brother’s Catholic high school English teacher when she read the syllabus and found only one woman on it: George Eliot.

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