Friday, September 27, 2013

Bigmouth Strikes: Gilmour Not the Norm, But Universities Still to Blame

Reflecting on the recent internet furor over David Gilmour's big mouth, I realized just how lucky my experience as a female in academia has been. During the 15 years I was (among other things) getting my two degrees in English at three Canadian institutions, 1995-2010, I was unfailingly treated with respect by my male professors, and in some cases something like awe. As far as gender-specific encouragement goes, I remember in particular the philosophy professor who told me “Don't let him get away with that!” when I backed down during an argument with a male student (I may have been the only woman in the seminar, but I can't remember because I paid no attention to my fellow students in university, only to the professor, the readings, and the ideas); and the high school math teacher who told me I'd be bored and stop attending class if I switched to business math (he was sweet but he couldn't do anything to interest me in math, not as long as there was literature to read). As far as encouraging me as a writer went, I remember the junior high teacher who slammed my screenplay assignment down on my desk with a big “A” scrawled on it and demanded, “Where did you learn to WRITE like that!??”

(Do I sound as pompous as Gilmour? Good, we can get that out of the way.)

I don't know about the rest of North America, but based on my experience, Canadian high schools and universities are far from being rife with male chauvinism. (In elementary school nearly all of my teachers, both male and female, hated me for being intelligent and intellectually curious, but that's another pedagogical kettle of fish.) Clearly these math and philosophy teachers had absorbed feminism's lessons about raising the self-esteem and engagement level of female students in these traditionally male subject areas. It didn't work with math but it did work with philosophy: I was interested in big ideas, not big numbers. Philosophy was my minor as an undergraduate, English my major, and I also have a Master's in English. I don't think David Gilmour is the norm – no, not even for his age. The majority of the male professors I took classes from, or simply socialized with, during 1995-2010 were between the ages of 45 and 65, and if they were 45 in 1995, that would place them within Gilmour's generation. Gilmour has no excuse.

You might think from the foregoing that I don't think that either North American Humanities departments or North American literary culture is male chauvinist, but you would be wrong. It's true that my English professors were 50/50 male/female (that's based on the total number of professors I took courses from, with my course choices dependent on my interests, what was available, and what was required for my program); my philosophy professors, on the other hand, were male straight down the line. Of all of the multiple-author English courses I took, the professor (male or female) managed to fit in a token female in about half the cases. The only course I ever took in which the female writers outnumbered the male writers was a Modernism course taught by a self-declared feminist. As for single-author course offerings: I took five on male authors (Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Donne, and T. S. Eliot), one on a female author (Austen), and don't recall in the 20 semesters of choosing courses seeing another one offered on a female author.

These experiences jibe with findings about the under-representation of female contributors and reviews of books by women in traditional literary journals like the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books. What's really depressing is that this under-representation is being carried over into new online journals like The Quarterly Conversation, which is ostensibly devoted to reviewing experimental world literature in translation but which you'd be forgiven for thinking is a space where men can hero-worship men, thanks to the shrines to Murakami, Wallace, and Bolano, and the low numbers of female contributors and subjects (in 2013 to date, together they hover at a little over 25%). Incidentally, the proof of my own devotion to Bolano is on this blog, and I have female friends and acquaintances that are among the biggest Murakami, Wallace, and Bolano fans I know. (That's how I discovered TQC: by looking for Bolano coverage.) So why is The Quarterly Conversation such an aggressively male space? And why is this considered literary culture as per usual, while spaces where women hero-worship women (e.g. Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Jeannette Winterson) are considered “feminist”? There are non-feminist female-dominated literary spaces on the internet, such as Goodreads, which seems to have been overtaken by chicklit-lovers – because, as Jonathan Franzen once lamented, in America women read and men don't. But that's average men and women. The literary elite is all, well, serious heterosexual guys – the writers and the reviewers. Women can have all of low literary culture to themselves as long as high literary culture remains the preserve of men.

What can we do to rectify this situation? Based on my own experience we are heading in the right direction in the universities, but we still have a long way to go, and it's not as though new media is going to automatically rescue us from ancient cultural assumptions. I can see the serious heterosexual guy contributors to TQC stamping their feet and pulling a Gilmour: “But I like what I like, and you can't make me like anything else! (And by the way, I only like The Best.)” And if the discouragement of women in subjects like philosophy isn't happening at the classroom level – where is it happening? Why have I heard from young female philosophy students that it's easier to get published with a male or gender-neutral pseudonym? If I were doing a minor in philosophy now, would I find more female professors, or not?

As far as my major is concerned, we have got to get female authors out of the Women's Studies ghetto (which should become Gender Studies anyway, and perhaps in some interdisciplinary cases, Sex Studies) and into the canon. Now that we've entered the 21st century this should be easier than ever, since there are plenty of well-known 20th century English-language female authors. But it's not as easy as it looks, since the two big “isms,” Modernism and postmodernism, are dominated by a roll call of male heroes (from Joyce to Beckett to Pynchon to DFW). To introduce more diversity into English Studies we might have to de-emphasize the traditional isms, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. On the contrary, since Modernism is widely seen (by its practitioners too) as being the end of traditional literary values, why shouldn't the postmodern literary canon be in perpetual flux and subject to perpetual debate?

It remains to be seen whether English Studies is even going to emerge from the demands of diversity, on the one hand, and the challenge of the digital era, on the other, in any kind of recognizable form. Should English finally be liberated from the theological close reading model? Is it possible that the kind of enrichment and pleasure offered by the close reading of aesthetically accomplished texts – the study of the canon – is only one kind, and that others that are just as good can come of reading and literary analysis? Is it coincidence or zeitgeist that I conceived the idea of reading The Recognitions side by side with its cultural evil twin, Peyton Place (the difficult male masterpiece vs. the trashy female bestseller), not long before I read Andrew Seals's Quarterly Conversation article on Franco Moretti's cheeky canon-revising concept of “distant reading,” “We Have Never Been Well-Read”? It does seem as though we're going to have to whittle down the pre-20th century canon even more, get those Great Dead White Males and smattering of females out of the way so that we can then pick our way through the ensuing flux, realizing that there is absolutely no way for us to read everything of value and interest, so we might as well study whatever we want to? Moreover, in North America this decision to educate oneself in these matters – to spend your youth thinking, to become a contemplative and critical citizen – is undertaken at a gouging cost with little if any financial reward at the end of it – but that's another cultural battle.

Meanwhile, I want to say these things to the commenters who've been defending Gilmour yet who seem to known nothing about either the study of literature or feminism, which pretty much rules them out from commenting:
  1. David Gilmour is not a “specialist.” He does not even have a Ph.D.. He's a literary author. He's stated that by his own choice, in fact insistence, he only teaches “what he loves.” That he only loves fiction by ageing white guys doesn't make him a specialist in fiction by ageing white guys. Just like if I only liked to read vampire fiction, that wouldn't make me a specialist in vampire fiction. I would be a specialist in vampire fiction if I chose that as my field of scholarship (with research and theses and discoveries about the genre and all of that), regardless of my feelings about vampire novels. 
  1. Yes, there are courses devoted to the exclusive study of literature by women. No, that's not a double standard, given the under-representation of female authors in English literature courses that I've described above. I've also stated that I think it's time to get rid of Women's Studies, but not so that we can go back to the old way of doing things. If the young male university students proclaiming their butthurt at the existence of Women's Studies are being sincere rather than disingenuous, I am sincerely concerned about their ability to reason. As for all of the young female university students (again, I presume that's what these women are) who have rushed to proclaim that they hate female authors too – all I can say is, good luck with that. Seriously, Canada, you're producing real winners.
  1. The issue is not whether or not it's important to be “passionate” about your subject matter. The issue is that by declaring himself passionate only about literature by “serious heterosexual guys” (and Proust... but whatever), Gilmour revealed that he's a close-minded, sexist, parochial ninny. Yes it is sexist to only read authors of your own gender, yes I would say that if a woman declared she was only interested in reading books by women.

I can definitely see how, as some commenters have claimed, Gilmour is a popular teacher. It probably is fun for a change to be taught by someone who is not a scholar, who has the privilege of only teaching what he loves (not what best represents his area of speciality, nor what would be best for the students), and who feels no obligation to be objective and distance himself from his feelings about the material. This is one of the benefits of hiring arts celebrity instructors; the other is that in this way such usually-struggling artists can earn a few more peanuts. Gilmour, however, has abused the privilege he's been granted of teaching what he loves by only loving what superficially resembles him. He is absolutely free to love what he wants and read what he wants, whatever anyone may think of it (as we are free to state what we think of it, given that he publicized these views). He is not, however, free to teach whatever he wants. University instructors and universities have obligations to their students. Gilmour is free to be uninterested in diversity in his private life, but not in his pedagogy.

And yet this opens a can of worms, which is presumably why the principal of Victoria College is defending Gilmour and hiding behind that ludicrous (in this context) word “specialized”: can professors be forced to include works by women and other examples of diversity in their syllabi? Should I have been upset that I didn't read anything by women in my philosophy classes? (I don't think I did, though I don't know about all of those analytical philosophy articles, and maybe they were using pseudonyms or initials.) The issue, however, is not that inclusion of texts by women is mandatory, but that Gilmour appears to be excluding certain authors from his syllabus because they are women, and that is discriminatory. The only way that would not be discriminatory is if he were teaching a course on male fiction.

I think it's endearing that the student protestors responded with the mantra “Gilmour! Read more!” (which was the first thing his Hazlitt interview made me think, after “What a nincompoop”) and by dressing up the statue of the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye in drag. Although I think there are grounds for firing Gilmour in his statements, what the outcry should really be about is making not Gilmour but English lit courses in general more diverse. It doesn't matter whether individual serious (white) heterosexual guy professors share Gilmour's sentiments: those sentiments are institutionalized. And we know that in the consumer-student era, students can get what they demand. They might as well use that dubious, debt-bought power for good.

This post belongs to a series on thinking about how cultural criticism should be practiced, and oddly enough, given the occasion, I'm more optimistic in this entry than I was in the first.


  1. Musicology is a disaster in this regard. The only female composers that are given their due are Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann-- and we only really know the latter two because of their husbands.

  2. One way in which Lit Studies has managed to dig up interesting new female Modernists is by starting to take the "girlfriends" seriously... (e.g., the marvelously named Unica Zurn)