Dear David Gilmour:
Hi there, my name is Emily Walker. You haven’t heard of me because I’m not a great middle-aged, heterosexual male writer like those you will only teach in your classes at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. I’m just one of those “young women who kind of wants to make a little name” for myself in the big bad world of literature. But I’m also not Canadian or Asian, so by your accounts I have that going for me.
I, like many, read your remarks to Emily Keeler of Random House’s “Hazlitt” digital magazine last week and was angered by them:
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.
I probably should just let this die and not add to the avalanche of links that appear when one now Google’s your name, but your comments are so outrageously out of touch with the general attitudes I encountered while attending university literature classes in Canada. While there, I had to read the following authors: Madeline Thien, Larissa Lai, Evelyn Lau, Miriam Toews, Kate Chopin, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Margery Kempe, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, H.D., Harper Lee, Aphra Behn and Sylvia Plath. None of them would make it on to your syllabus due to that whole vagina thing and the first three doubly wouldn’t due to them being Asian as well. Male professors assigned many of those authors to me, by the way.
I also had to read the following: Graham Greene, Ernest Hemmingway, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde. Some of the men on this list could probably be considered pretty masculine and most of them are considered part of the dead, white guy canon. Each one of the works I had to read by those dead white guy writers I enjoyed immensely and I related to them on a real human level. However, my ovaries didn’t preclude me from enjoying the elements of ‘great literature’ that we are all supposed to enjoy and hold forth; language, imagery, metaphors, compelling characters, timelessness, social critique and the story itself.
But many of those dead white guy authors above wrote stories I personally found incredibly relatable. For example, Graham Greene’s novels have resonated with me due to my expatriate childhood. You relate to Phillip Roth because he “has the best understanding of middle-aged sexuality” you’ve ever come across. It’s pretty cool we can each find something in the canon that we relate to. It’s also called privilege. The reality is, many people can’t find writing they can relate to on a real human level in the canon. More often than not it’s because they aren’t seeing their experience—as a woman, a person of color, or as a member of the LGBT community—on the page.
By the way, I also had to read your precious Virginia Woolf—the one woman that’s worth teaching according to you. I actually read her in a second-year English class, so I probably didn’t really get it. That whole thing about a “room of one’s own” confuses me so.
There were also many authors that were never assigned to me inside the walls of academia and that I had to discover on my own; Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Allison, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Zadie Smith, and Joyce Carol Oates among many others. You can probably figure out the commonalities between many of them.
You know what I had to read three times in a five-year span of time between high school and my freshmen year of college? William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I’ve actually grown to love Lord of the Flies over the years, but I do often wonder what other writers I could have been exposed to if it wasn’t required reading for me three different times in five years. What other writers could all the young men or women, Asian or otherwise, gay or straight in your classes be exposed to if they weren’t just reading the golden circle of manly-men you’ve chosen?
The reason you say you teach the heterosexual male authors that you do is because you “only teach the people you truly, truly love”. Now, I apologize Mr. Gilmour if I’m speaking out of turn and beyond my years and experience, but I don’t really think that’s exactly what you are supposed to do as a professor. Your role as teacher is to educate. Often times this means teaching material you personally wouldn’t sit at home in your easy chair reading, especially if you are teaching a survey course. I know some literature and writing professors who dislike poetry on a personal level, but they obviously have to teach it sometimes. Despite their personal preferences they understand that certain poets have been influential to the history of literature. By disregarding things that don’t just fit your personal aesthetic as a reader and writer, you are doing a major disservice not only to your students, but ultimately to yourself and your own writing too.
Every book ever published has the potential to inform a writer’s future work—you just have to read those said books.
You actually teach the heterosexual male authors, Mr. Gilmour, because it’s the easy way out. You teach only them because you are lazy.
Many people have chosen to vilify you specifically and frankly, I think that’s a bit too easy. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that you are part of a larger problem and not just one bad apple. You, and the few remaining men allowed to behave this way in literature and education are the reason organizations like VIDA and CWILA have to exist. So, I guess thanks for that?
While your classroom may not be inclusive and is devoid of anything other than the canon of “the serious heterosexual guys” you’ve chosen, those of us “down the hall” are a bit more open to defining what ‘great’ literature is.
We’ll leave the door open for you—feel free to stop by.
Oh, and Proust was homosexual, by the way.
Good luck with the Giller Prize this year—I have a funny feeling you’ll need it.
(Regardless if you or others choose to recognize it, this is my name. I don’t really need your help in ‘making’ mine.)