When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, I took a course called ENG361, which was meant to cover American fiction since 1960. The syllabus was varied: We studied books by men and women, and from an incredible variety of cultural backgrounds. Some of the books were good, some of them were less good. I remember wondering, while struggling through a book I didn’t like, if we wouldn’t all be better off if the class focused on, you know, Great Literature?
Well, no. But there was no way I could have known that then. David Gilmour, however, should know better. The Canadian novelist, whose new book, Extraordinary, is nominated for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, set the Internet ablaze on Wednesday with comments about his teaching practices. In an interview with Hazlitt, an online magazine operated by Random House Canada, Gilmour revealed that, in his work at the University of Toronto, he teaches only material he loves. Unfortunately, that does not include books by women, gay writers or Chinese writers. I should just let him take it from here:
“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.”
Gilmour’s comments were promptly consumed by an inspiring tide of Internet rage – many people have dismantled his biases better than I can, and faster. But beyond the bile, what dismays me is that Gilmour is in a position to shape the way young readers think about literature.
I read a lot as a kid, more than most of my classmates, at least, and I read relatively widely. I thought I knew a lot; I didn’t, obviously. I had read great books, but had no sense yet of the greater possibilities of literature. I did have an inner voice that told me I was wasting my time by reading anything other than agreed-upon classics, which, for the record, are in the majority books written by white men. Since then, I’ve learned that the only way to live an intellectually ambitious life is to be a person who questions that inner voice. Ask it enough questions, and it eventually shuts up.
Thankfully, I had a professor who knew these things, and who scheduled for us a robust and diverse reading list. These books taught me something about what it would be to live as different people, of different ethnic backgrounds, in different economic circumstances, in different places. They taught me something of how other people look at the world, what they cherish, what they regret. They taught me, plain and simple, to be a better person. They taught me, to borrow from David Foster Wallace, how to be less alone.
Less fortunate are the undergraduate students being taught this year by Gilmour. The woman who taught the class I took was named Sarah Wilson. She is an exceptional professor, and I was fortunate enough to take three or four classes with her over the years. She is a white woman, yet somehow she found a way to read beyond her own ethnocultural background. And, happily for my young mind, she reported back, demanding that I read unfamiliar things, too. I was made better by that.
Because of her, I now believe that professors have an ethical responsibility to show their students the world, as best they can. I’m not calling for quotas, and I’m not saying bad books should be taught through affirmative action. I am calling for those in positions to influence the understanding and discussion of literature to think bigger and better, to see farther and wider. To, quite simply, do better. We’ll all benefit.
Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail's Books editor.