“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.” — Giller longlisted author David Gilmour
Glad that is all worked out then. *dusts hands*
I’m not overly shocked when I hear these sentiments. Really. Seriously. This type of tacit sexist rhetoric plagues seemingly everything women do.
“Women aren’t funny” is probably the most popular one, trotted out by numerous people trying to lambast female comedians.
Maybe these people saw one female comic who wasn’t funny, decided they represented the whole gender because, hey all women have the same experiences right, or, maybe they have some built in sexism courtesy of the systemic patriarchy pulsing through our society and made that very well formed opinion.
Similarly, people read one book by a woman, do not like it, and write off all women with “women can’t write.”
It’s a terrible way to form an argument, but it seems perfectly acceptable to some.
I don’t normally respond to these comments because that would be giving some purpose and endorsement to these inane statements and, really, why bother?
These people are obviously wrong in their blind generalizations of something they clearly haven’t spent time in or would ever attempt to spend time in.
However, David Gilmour’s statement rings a little different. He doesn’t come out and say “women can’t write,” but most certainly, it is there in the underbelly of his male-dominated sentiments.
David Gilmour, I’m not interested in changing your mind or telling you who your “favourites” are (I’ve had many a fellow tell me why I’m wrong to like something, and, boy is it annoying), but making a dismissive statement like “I’m not interested in teaching books by women” implies a few, terrible, things.
1. You probably don’t try to read books by women in general — save for Virigina Woolf, who despite not having a penis or declaring herself a man, has managed to scratch (ladies scratch) tooth and nail, despite all odds, to get to the top — so how can you really make such an informed statement on “women’s literature.”
If you’re not actively reading women authors, how can they become your faves? Seriously! According to your statement, it seems like you’ve read ’em all, and all of them didn’t make the cut.
I’m lucky to know a few excellent English teachers and women writers seem to make it on their favourites list, which then happen to make it into the classroom.
See, the thing about not teaching women in your class is that then you are erasing their experiences from yet another arena. You cop out with the line “they’re not my favourites,” but could that elitist and, yes, sexist ‘tude be perpetuated on to your students. Why yes, it could.
Removing women writers from your class, removes their experiences, removes their voice. If people don’t have to learn or, hell, care about women writers in class, why would they bother caring about them outside of class?
Also, the other thing that gets me is the one-sidedness of the whole thing. Yes your class, your favourites, blah blah. But, if you have had students repeatedly wondering why there are no female authors on the list, maybe that should be a sign to double check your list and your reading materials and start finding things your students want to read too. Just a thought.
2. You are overlooking a large historical context of sexism (cough and racism cough).
Maybe why there aren’t a ton of female writers scrapping (ladies are scrappy!) for your necessary stamp of approval is because women (cough and people of colour cough) were systematically held down and out from education and things like writing and that cycle continues to churn, albeit in different ways.
This whole history thing can be embodied in a conversation about Victorian writer Mary Anne Evans. Evans was a writer who, gasp, was a female writer who, gasp, wrote one of the best English language novels, Middlemarch, and, delayed gasp, had the male pen name of George Eliot.
She went by a male name so publishers would actually consider printing it and people would actually consider reading it presumably because that meant readers and publishers alike wouldn’t have to deal with “lady issues” like menstruation.
Despite Middlemarch’s status, I assume Eliot is not on the list either.
Look, I’m not about to pretend to wax theoretical about how a teacher should teach, but I would have hoped that English teachers were aware of they glaring chasm between writers of different genders (do I dare speak to writers outside the gender binary?) throughout history and how that affects the books which students read.
I’m also in the camp that it should be a teacher’s job to present a platform of diverse authors and books and allow students to decide what’s best. But, hey, that’s me.
Leaving women off the list leaves out an entire side of the discussion and potentially alienates a lot of people within that classroom too.
3. You seem acutely aware that saying “I don’t like women writers” is “bad,” but feel it can be dismissed by saying “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”
And even though people in your class wonder why there are not women writers you again just say “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. Go down the hall.”
“What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.” Manly men. Only manly men in here like F.Scott Fitzgerald (literally joke provided by Michael Stewart.)
To reiterate, this is tacit sexism and it is bullshit.
Women writers are not a novelty item or a token presence, first and foremost they are writers who happen to identify as women. Women writers write about the same things men do and even different things too because isn’t that what makes a literary canon wonderful — diversity in opinion, experience and style?
By not being accountable to your actions (re: they’re sexist) and attempting to “check yourself” you reinforce the whole white male privilege thing that got us here in the first place. Saying you don’t like women writers is inherently sexist because you are generalizing a whole group of people — most of whom I’m assuming you haven’t read — and then saying “no.”
I don’t know how to sum up this third statement other than to say “your misogyny and white male privilege are showing.” Constantly stating you teach “only the best” ipso facto “women aren’t the best.” You don’t have to worry about male writers being left of the list. So…
4. Perhaps, the main reasons I wrote this, is you have been longlisted for the Giller Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards; therefore, you are a voice for Canadian literature both nationally and internationally.
I’m (again) super glad that one of the voices representing CanLit says things like “I don’t love women writers” because it is soo representative of the Canadian writing community. I’m super glad that your message is going to resonant with some people, potentially people of power like editors and publishers, and once again women writers will suffer unequal representation. And, finally, I’m super glad that you feel women writers are second tier in the writing community.
I’m baffled. How is this still a thing people say? Especially with so many amazing Canadian women writers on the scene (not to mention on the same list), and of course the Queen of Canada: Margaret Atwood.
Regardless of your intent, Mr. Gilmour, your comments were insulting, disrespectful and completely unfounded. I don’t attempt to change your mind, to implore you to (sarcastically) “give us a chance” because that is pointless, and I don’t want to.
I wish you would consider putting more women writers on your reading lists; I wish you would consider reading more women writers; I wish you would consider your own statements as sexism and change; I wish you would consider your actions have a rippling effect in your class.
But is all seems pointless to even ask you to reconsider.
Kaitlin McNabb is rabble’s books coordinator and a woman writer.
She frequently tweets at @kaitlinmcnabb