Thursday, September 26, 2013

An Example of Sexism (and other 'isms') Among Writers -- A Rant

I'm not *that* easily offended. Things that get many of my liberal/feminist friends and colleagues offended typically don't rile me in the same way.


Because this is the essence of why sexism exists. This, my friends, is the reason women authors (on the whole) are not treated as being "equal" to men authors. Why they are not taken "seriously." This is the essence of why both men and women feel they need to fit into two genders and two quaint little boxes proscribing "optimal" male and female behavior.

First, I invite you to read the article that got me so riled here. The title is quite apt, because I needed a strong stomach to read it. 

So, go ahead and read it. I'll be waiting here.
. . .
All done? Take the time to munch a few saltines if you're feeling nauseous.
. . .
Back? Good. Let's discuss. 

I'll start with the preliminaries. Mr. Gilmour has every right to read what he likes. We all like what we like. He wants to teach what he loves. He has that right also, and it appears he was perfectly upfront with the University of Toronto about the content of his course.

Mr. Gilmour writes: 
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.

Um, okay. I was taken aback by the assumption that only Russian and American authors qualify as (apparently) being good writers in this genre. But again, we all read what we like and if Mr. Gilmour has had success only reading authors from these countries, he has every right to continue doing so. 

But then, I almost fell out of my chair:
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… 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… 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.


Mr. Gilmour writes, "I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them." Okay, we've got it, Sir. You don't like women writers. But at this point, we--the readers--are really getting the impression it's not that you don't like women writers, it's that you haven't read enough of them. Because if you did, you would see that there are amazing women writers. (Any reasonable lists of "best writers," inevitably have women on them. If you’re looking old-school, how about Austen, the Bronte sisters, Wharton, Shelley? Or more contemporary writers such as Morrison or Atwood?)

And finally, the point that really blew my mind:
What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald(1), Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller(2). Philip Roth. [See my notes below]

Honestly, I'm not upset that Mr. Gilmour is not "interested in teaching books by women." That is his preference, and his right, and the University of Toronto accepted him on those terms. And every major university that I know of offers a course or two that will specifically address women writers.

Here's one problem: You should be well read enough to recognize and acknowledge the existence of great women writers. Because that is the reality. You might still choose not to teach them in your class--that is absolutely okay. Women writers may not be your personal favorites (also okay.) But you don't even acknowledge they exist. The woman writer is invisible.

Another problem: In Mr. Gilmour's warped mind, there is a “masculine” and a related heterosexual benchmark. Obviously, in his estimation, non-contemporary men writing during less enlightened times meet his criteria for optimal heterosexuality, for "manhood," and for general validation as writers and as human beings.

We are to assume, then, a homosexual man is not a “real guy?” And what makes a heterosexual man a "serious heterosexual guy?" Because my husband might want to know. 

Mr. Gilmour, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. I pity every woman; pity every person of any gender who must sit through your classes as nuanced human beings. Because you clearly believe there is an Optimal Writer and an Optimal Way to Be a Human and it is white, male, privileged and staunchly heterosexual and homophobic. 

I despair for the dozens of students you have made feel "less than." I'm disgusted, because you are an educator. You should strive to do better. 

- - - - 

(1) A "serious heterosexual guy"—which Gilmour considers admirable—is in this case a "playboy" who succumbs to alcoholism and was reputed to abuse his wife. 
(2) A "serious heterosexual guy" in this case engages in numerous 'sexual escapades' even after marriage. And marries five times.

Being a philanderer or having substance abuse problems does not make you a bad person—that is not my point. My point is: There is a certain profile emerging of what Gilmour considers preferable "masculinity." And it obviously carries over into what he reads, what he doesn't read, and who he considers "real writers." And therefore, what he writes, teaches, and puts out into the world.

As someone in a position of power and influence over younger men and women, Mr. Gilmour is simply upholding the sexist, gendered, imperialist beliefs that prevent both women and men from feeling comfortable being their true, nuanced selves. 

He is upholding the erroneous belief that women are not--and can not--be "real" writers.


  1. Obviously, Gilmour has gotten called out by others. Here's some follow-up. He actually makes himself sound worse, if that is possible. HE ACTUALLY REFERS TO HIS STUDENTS AS 'GIRLS'. OMG, I think I'm going to go bang my head against a wall.

  2. You missed the very best line in the whole article a few paragraphs down from his "guy-guy" BS:

    I teach only the best.

    Really, really want to hurt this guy. >:( Grrrr!!