U of T lit prof David Gilmour apologizes for interview gaffe disparaging women writers

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
U of T lit prof David Gilmour apologizes for interview gaffe disparaging women writers

You might not have heard of David Gilmour, once a familiar face to Canadians as prominent arts commentator on CBC Television. But I bet you will now, after he disparaged the value of female writers in a blog, causing an explosion on social media.

Gilmour gave up his gig as a TV talking head in the mid-1980s to concentrate on writing. He's produced a string of novels including A Perfect Night to Go to China, which won a Governor-General's Award for fiction in 2005. He also teaches literature at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, and that's what's landed him in hot water.

Gilmour gave an interview recently to the online magazine for publisher Random House of Canada, Hazlitt, for a regular column on what writers have on their own bookshelves.

Not surprisingly, there was no mention of Stephen King or Tom Clancy. Gilmour's personal taste runs to Proust, Tolstoy and Chekov, Philip Roth, Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And he told interviewer Emily Keeler that what he likes, he teaches to his first- and third-year students.

"So I teach mostly Russian and American authors," he said. "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."

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Controversial, to be sure. But here's what really got social media buzzing:

"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."

The Hazlitt piece had barely been posted Wednesday when Salon pop culture writer Prachi Gupta lit into Gilmour.

"There are a few things that University of Toronto English professor David Gilmour does not like: all Canadian writers, Chinese writers and female writers," she wrote Wednesday.

"What does he like? Himself, it seems. Also, dudes. Dudes can write."

It's true Gilmour does not hide his own light under a bushel, boasting to Keeler about getting the teaching post at Victoria College.

"You have to have a doctorate to teach here, but they asked if I would teach a course, and I said I would," he told her.

"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."

Ignoring the fact TV in Gilmour's day was a one-way conversation (unlike in the age of social media, which he eschews), and that even undergrad courses hopefully are not, his views quickly got the tweets flying.

One tweet noted this bit of irony.

[ Related: ‘Campus Freedom Index’ gives free speech a failing grade at Canadian universities ]

And it didn't take long to spawn this spoof on The Toast.

Gilmour responded to the furor Wednesday with an interview in the National Post.

"I’m absolutely surprised, but I’m also extremely sorry to hear that there are people who are really offended by it," he told the Post. "I’ve been getting some letters this morning from people who are deeply, racially, ethnically, and intellectually offended by this."

Gilmour said his talk with Keeler wasn't a formal sit-down interview, more of a chat with "tossed-off remarks." Comments about women, Chinese and other writers were meant as jokes. He said he's emailed his critics and apologized.

"I'm not a politician, I'm a writer," he said. "We throw out tens of thousands of words every day. We usually rewrite them. In this particular chance, I didn’t get a chance to re-speak the sentence before it was printed.

"And so I’ve apologized. I said I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body, and everyone who knows me knows it."

It seems unlikely the university administration will want to encroach on the principle of academic freedom by demanding a quota of female authors in Gilmour's courses, especially if he has tenure. It'll be up to students to decide whether adding other writers would prove more enriching for them.

His page on Rate My Professors has only a handful of reviews, largely positive, with an overall rating of 3.6 out of 5. However one review last year noted Gilmour was "very full of himself" and it was "painfully obvious he favours the guys in the class."

"When asked why there were no female authors on the syllabus said "I don't believe in 'good for you' literature.' Some students love him, but I honestly think while he might be intelligent he hasn't matured past adolescence."