I would not ordinarily do this: I wouldn’t ordinarily attack a colleague in public over something that colleague said in a non-academic publication. Thankfully, David Gilmour isn’t actually a colleague of mine, despite what you might have read. Gilmour is emphatically not a “University of Toronto literature professor.” He is a novelist and a broadcaster; he teaches a few classes at Victoria College; and he makes extremely blinkered statements about literature. He’s not a member of the English Department, or of any other department of literature at U of T. His title of “Professor,” as listed on the Victoria College website, is an honorific, as far as I can tell.

As he says himself, “I got this job six or seven years ago, usually the University of Toronto doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate. You have to have a doctorate to teach here.” Damn straight. (Actually: no, not really. Though it’s mostly true. Thankfully, most instructors without a PhD don’t sound like David Gilmour.)

Anyway: David Gilmour is not a colleague of mine. And as far as I can tell from his published comments, he isn’t much of a literature professor either. I don’t want to belittle the man: he evidently puts in the work. As he told the Hazlitt blogger, he loves Proust so much, he’s read him twice. A true worker in the vineyard of the literary gods.

The biggest hits on his shelf, he says, are Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Proust. His love for these guys is reflected in his teaching, which focusses on “Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.” But not, it seems, the twice-read Proust. The massively guy-guy Proust, notorious philanderer, heavy drinker, gregarious man-about-town Proust. (Not the Proust you know? Someone might want to drop David Gilmour a note. Or a biography.)

And of course, Gilmour won’t teach women authors, because he just doesn’t love women authors enough. Except for Virginia Woolf, whom he loves so much he can’t teach her, because his students, even in third year (he teaches third-year classes?) aren’t smart enough for Woolf.

Here’s the thing: I’m glad David Gilmour isn’t teaching Virginia Woolf. I’m sorry he’s teaching Chekhov, and Tolstoy, and Fitzgerald. I don’t really care about Roth or Henry Miller: he can teach them to death as far as I’m concerned. There must be other authors who need the kind of pseudo-biographical rubbish Gilmour heaps on Chekhov, who apparently was “the coolest guy in literature.” (Christopher Marlowe called to complain: What makes Chekhov so cool? Whom did Chekhov ever kill? Did Chekhov ever catch a knife in the eye? Or get done for coining? Fuck that milktoast Chekhov.) Chekhov also laughed loudly. And he made everyone around him a better person. Man, that Chekhov. What a guy. What a guy-guy.

I don’t know if this inane interview bears any resemblance to what Gilmour is telling his students. If it does, I’m sorry. They might as well read Wikipedia. Rather notably absent from the interview: literature. Rather notably over-present: authors. Profession of the interviewee: author.

So that’s all a curdled mess of intellectual mediocrity. And really not worth bothering with. What is more troubling to me than the initial interview, though, is Gilmour’s follow-up conversation with the Globe and Mail, in which he explains what he really meant to say:

People are calling you a sexist for refusing to teach books by women. Were your statements in Hazlitt misrepresented in any way?

They were totally, totally misinterpreted. I said, look, I’m a middle-aged writer and I am interested in middle-aged writers. I’m very keen on people’s lives who resemble mine because I understand those lives and I can feel passionately about them – and I teach best when I teach subjects that I’m passionate about.

So in order to teach, you have to relate?

I believe that if you want to teach the way I want to teach, you have to be able to feel this stuff in your bones. Other teachers don’t, but I don’t think other teachers necessarily teach with the same degree of commitment and passion that I do – I don’t know.

It is obviously Gilmour’s prerogative, as a middle-aged writer, to be interested (exclusively?) in other middle-aged writers. He sounds staggeringly narrow-minded and parochial to me, but he’s allowed to be those things. I kind of thought “write what you know” was a first-book sort of principle, but I’m not a writer, and I don’t know. But what such an attitude has to do with teaching is entirely beyond me. And I am a teacher, so I believe I know a thing or two about that.

Is passion about your subject matter important in teaching? Absolutely. Is the passion required in teaching typically stirred because the teacher identifies with the author or the text she teaches? I seriously hope not. I can only speak for myself, but I can categorically say that I have never identified with Shakespeare. (Marlowe, well. Is wanting to be someone the same as being someone? [For the record: I don’t want to be Marlowe. I like my eye-sockets too much.]) I don’t believe I have a reputation for lacking passion for my subject, though. But what do I know. From what I can observe in my colleagues, I don’t think too many of them only teach authors in whose works they see mirror-images of themselves. English Departments would otherwise be rife with psychopaths, morbidly jealous types, would-be kings and queens, and wealthy socialites. And people who ride around on donkeys. (They’re not?) I don’t even want to think about how dangerous a work environment history departments would be.

The exact opposite of Gilmour’s point is true: good teaching requires empathy — an effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you. Some of those people are your students. Some of those things are of the past. Some of those ideas are the ideas of authors from different cultures than yours, and yes, shockingly, even of a different gender. Engaging with those people, things, and ideas is not just what research means, and why research is necessary, it’s what reading is.

Gilmour’s account of his teaching, by contrast, is strikingly devoid of empathy. Chinese authors? Can’t love them. Queer authors? Can’t love them. (But Marcel….) Female authors? Can’t love them. White men who are like me or who I want to be? Love those. Sympathy is what this view of things is all about: one big group hug among guys across the twentieth century, all guys like Gilmour. What’s genuinely hilarious, rather than merely depressing, is the predictable homophobia that goes hand in hand with this chest-thumpy, circle-jerky, narcissistic literary self-love-fest: Gilmour loves Chekhov so much, he’d marry him tomorrow if only they weren’t both so amazingly straight. Though “literary” seems almost incidental. None of what makes Chekhov a cool guy, after all, has anything to do with the plays or short stories he wrote. It’s all about his “personality.” His grace. His generosity. And his “bellicose laugh.”

This is a ranty post, because I’m in a ranty mood. I’ll stop ranting now. But not without this: David Gilmour is not a professor of literature. He’s someone who teaches a couple of courses on an odd assemblage of texts. David Gilmour does not talk or think like a professor of literature. He doesn’t say the sorts of things professors of literature tend to say. He doesn’t seem interested in the sorts of things professors of literature are interested in. David Gilmour is not my colleague.

Most crucially, David Gilmour doesn’t seem to grasp why anyone should read literature at all. We can argue about whether Hamlet is right or not when he claims that art holds a mirror up to nature. But let’s just say he is. Here’s what Hamlet doesn’t say: that art is a mirror you choose to pick up to see yourself. Art shows you a mirror. That thing you see in there isn’t supposed to be your pre-conceived self-image. It’s something strange, and alien, and scary, or ridiculous, or dull. But it’s something that demands engagement. And sometimes, it becomes something that you realize is in fact you — but that’s not meant to be a happy realization. If the thing you see when you look into a book looks exactly like what you think you look like, you’re doing it wrong. And David Gilmour is most certainly doing it wrong.

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228 Responses to The Loneliness of the Old White Male

  1. […] is death to any kind of interesting story. It robs the story of its meat, of what makes it a story (the possibility of empathy, even if not sympathy) and since we’ve already established that country is in the business of story-telling, reducing […]

  2. anon says:

    Thanks, for this post. I was wondering if this sort of attitude was common among lit professors in U of T. Nice to know it isn’t. My faith in humanity has been restored.

  3. ronda says:

    “I don’t even want to think about how dangerous a work environment history departments would be.” giggle.

  4. […] Very quickly, some of Gilmour’s U of T colleagues began to weigh in. English professor Holger Syme, on his blog, wrote: “If the thing you see when you look into a book looks exactly like what […]

  5. […] a landslide of responses, including letters from the University of Toronto Student Union, and from colleagues. Students arranged a […]

  6. robin says:

    You aee so incredibly lyrical. Loved this rant!

  7. […] had to be a joke, because nobody could possibly talk like that, right? Holger Syme has written the best possible response to Gilmour. […]

  8. […] students and teachers at the University of Toronto, we wanted to make our voices and those of our colleagues and students heard. In response to Gilmour’s comments, we organized a literary rally called Serious Heterosexual […]

  9. […] Some of the best criticisms of Gilmour have addressed his irresponsibility as a teacher in not teaching women writers. They’ve also rightfully called out U of T for letting Gilmour get away with teaching courses that are uncritically centred on the books he loves. As Christine Sismondo nicely put it, “It’s not at all unusual for people to want to teach only the things they like, but, generally speaking, it is unusual for them to get what they want.” I read almost all of the authors Gilmour loves during my undergraduate at Western (Philip Roth didn’t make the cut). I also read Virgina Woolf (in first, second, and third year!), Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelley, and so many more. I guess you could say I took, among others, the “classes down the hall” (where Gilmour helpfully suggested students wishing to read those authors could go). I can imagine a class in which Gilmour teaches writerly reading by teaching Henry Miller; I’ve been in a course like that and the professor became my mentor and inspired much of my graduate work. I’ve never been taught by Gilmour so I don’t know how he teaches these texts – and at least one of his students wants to defend him as teacher – but, even though he’s a writer, I don’t think there’s much evidence that he’s a skilled writerly reader himself. Holger Syme makes a similar argument in his blog post, here. […]

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