Why Literary Guys Can’t Have Nice Things

I took a silly online test that takes into consideration my gender, race, religion, how I think I look, and other factors, to tells me how privileged I am. I scored a 140. Anything over 100 is considered privileged. Of course, I didn’t need a markedly unscientific joke quiz to tell me that. But Canadian author, critic, and professor David Gilmour might.

I know I’m privileged because I’m a straight, cisgender white man, and I also know that I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes on an almost daily basis; I screw up, say and do stupid things from time to time. The thing is, no matter what, I’d never on my worst day say or think anything contained in the following quote from an interview Emily Keeler conducted with Gilmour for Hazlitt:

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. So you’re quite right, and 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.

In this age of @Horse_Ebooks, Internet performance artists, and Onion-writer wannabe satirists, I had to reread Gilmour’s interview a few times, hoping for the smallest hint of jest in his comments — but I got nothing. Even if he was only half-serious, there is no context in which it’s appropriate for a person who is paid to teach students — all students, not just “serious heterosexual guys” who happen not to be Chinese — about literature to suggest that the collective literary achievements of over half the human race don’t merit his time.

All of which is to say that David Gilmour has become the newest face of white male literary hubris gone fucking wild. (Jonathan Franzen must be grateful for the reprieve.) Even his attempt at an apology was a fail. “What happens with great literature is that the shadows on the pages move around. So you read it when you’re 46, and you read it when you’re — I’m 63 now, and it’s moved,” Gilmour told Canada’s National Post. He also assured us that he told people who have emailed him about his comments, “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” (a classic “sorry you’re offended”) and alleged that Keeler “is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself.” (Hazlitt has responded by publishing the full transcript of her conversation with Gilmour.)

It would be nice if, no matter how many books they’ve authored or how exalted their tenured positions at universities are, sexist literary guys  like Gilmour would just kindly fade away into old age and irrelevance. Unfortunately, though, even though his blatant sexism (and strange distaste for Chinese writers) could be seen as a product of his age, the problem isn’t limited to writers of the baby boomer generation and older. I still hear this kind of garbage all the time from literary dudes 40 years younger than he is. It might not be as blatant, but a lot of guys in the world of books seem to think with their penises and not with their heads, regardless of age. Guys like this — men who actually need a stupid online calculator to put them in touch with their privilege — make us all look bad.

We can do better — and we really need to, or we all risk becoming irrelevant relics.