How David Gilmour Was Misunderstood

The Hazlitt interview that instantly made David Gilmour the writer more infamous than the musician by the same name really got under people’s skin. Though I can see how he came off as abrasive, I contend that there was nothing remotely terrible about what he said whatsoever. If we look at isolated sentences pedantically in the mood to see a monster, we see a monster. That backlash was international is insane. Nothing in the interview suggests Gilmour is a moral failure, and we know very little about the actual way he teaches (making pedagogical criticisms spurious). But the hate he received makes him entitled to a defence.

I have the full transcript in mind as I absolve him of the main charges.

Gilmour

(Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press)

Homophobia

Gilmour begins the interview praising Chekhov and Proust. Chekhov was such a wonderful man and a “great-looking guy.” But what do we make of the fact that Gilmour got burned for being a homophobe when he teaches Proust? Gilmour said he likes manly authors! Big macho men! Idiots left comments saying in effect, “Gilmour probably doesn’t know Proust himself is gay!” In Search of Lost Time is literally the longest novel in the world. It is seven volumes totalling over 4000 pages. Of the seven, Gilmour’s favourite is Sodom and Gomorrah, a funny novel “about gay vanity”. Nobody can seriously claim Gilmour doesn’t know Proust is gay, yet they did.

Gilmour stated that he has read Proust twice. Maybe if Gilmour wasn’t such a vile homophobe he’d have read Proust more than that, but really, if we are to gauge his homophobia according to his willingness to read gay literature, then we are the homophobes. (Unless you’ve read Proust more than twice and listened to both versions of the audiotape). Since Proust is about the best novelist of the 20th century, Gilmour’s literary barometer seems to be calibrated not according to hetero-normative standards (macho), but to quality.

Misogyny

The comment sections from articles about rape and genocide were comparatively empty next to the one wherein Gilmour confessed he doesn’t truly, truly love female writers apart from Woolf. Many seem to equate denouncing Gilmour with a basic concern for females. A quick recap:

Shelf Esteem is a wonderful segment conducted by the talented Emily Keeler. (I personally emailed her months ago in praise of production). Keeler gets writers to talk casually about their books. Gilmour said he’s in the middle of moving, so 1,000-1,200 books are currently missing. On his shelf now are mostly books related to teaching. There was a Sheila Heti book with a dedication from the author so “sweet,” Gilmour insisted Keeler not photograph it. It was private. Keeler noted that the other books were mostly by males, to which he agreed. His favourite authors are male. Who cares? People commonly gravitate towards authors like them.

Gilmour said he is not interested in teaching books by women. He agreed when he took the position to only teach what he loves, and, apart from Virginia Woolf, that he doesn’t truly love any women writers. “…if you want women writers, go down the hall. What I’m good at is guys.”

The outrage this caused was mostly, but not entirely, social concern / political fury dressed in cheap literary garb. Some of these pedagogical complaints were legitimate, even if I disagree. Obviously Woolf has a special place in the man’s soul, and obviously he is describing his own tastes. Taste and literary judgement are related, but not synonymous: I love Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version most of all, but I recognize Middlemarch is objectively a better novel. So, teaching what one loves best, even though it is a type of literary judgement, isn’t a repudiation of everything else. I also love Barney’s Version more than Moby Dick and anything written by Nabokov, though Melville and Nabokov are probably the greatest English writers aside from Joyce. It’s the sheer stupidity that many commenters (not all!) showed which suggests that Gilmour’s critics aren’t upset on this level.

Many listed famous female authors are worth studying, (as if Gilmour doesn’t know about Jane Austen or George Eliot) and of course are excellent writers. So, why is a successful male novelist treated like a troll? It seems like any perceived insult against feminism makes some people positively insane. I’m sorry, but I have a hard time believing that Gilmour’s critics have read Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Proust on the one hand, and also Atwood, the Brontes, Eliot, Zadie Smith, et al. on the other.

Has the internet suddenly become highly literate? What seems to be filled with social concern, a lovely and wonderful thing, yet people of a certain mentality make mistakes wandering into an unfamiliar realm—literature. Gilmour mistakenly believed he could opt out of the political sensitivities that exist everywhere and candidly expressed his literary opinion. More respect should be accorded to a novelist and literature professor interviewed by a literary magazine about his own books.

Next Gilmour said he teaches “very serious heterosexual guys.” Perhaps some reasonably interpreted this to mean women aren’t serious. However, I think Gilmour meant just that Miller and Roth aren’t pornographers or vulgarians but serious literary writers who write frankly about sexuality. From the lurid descriptions I understand are in Miller and from the outrageous satire found in Roth, where men eat menstrual pads and lick menstrual blood, this clarification is justifiable. There are philistines so illiterate they condemn Lolita as a disgusting novel written by a pig, and these sub-literate people might also object to Roth and Miller. [ed. note: citation needed]

Tolstoy is larger than male or female, he is simply almighty Tolstoy. Applying a gender perspective to the author of the all encompassing Anna Karenin is trite. He is a genre unto himself. Every first-rate author is an original, and their novels, even if they’re acknowledging or subverting conventions from other genres, contribute too much original stuff to be too firmly tied to anyone else. Tolstoy is perhaps the broadest genre around. Those who have never read him lump his writing into the category of dead, white European males, who presumably render innocent students patriarchal oppressors upon graduation. Yes, because Tolstoy corrupts the minds of everyone who actually reads him; just ask Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Pedagogy

What exactly is the obligation of a literature professor? This difficult question has no single answer. Critics said that Gilmour ought to expose readers to a diverse amount of literature, not just what he loves.

This is bogus.

Loving a book doesn’t disqualify it for the syllabus, obviously, but what kind of diversity is wanted? In terms of literary style, these six writers write nothing alike. That’s a type of diversity. On the surface, they hail from three different countries, are gay and straight, gentiles and a Jew. He obviously hasn’t included women or Canadians, but he wasn’t kidding when he said they can be found down the hall. Gilmour teaches the 3000 level, and look what they have there:

  • Women writers 1660-1800
  • Austen and her contemporaries
  • Early Canadian literature
  • Canadian poetry
  • Canadian drama
  • Canadian fiction
  • Indigenous women’s literature
  • Caribbean literature
  • African literature
  • Asian North American prose and poetry in English
  • South Asian literature
  • Postcolonial and transnational literature
  • Jewish literature.

Nobody can read this list and accuse the UofT for being mired in Western male patriarchy, or complain no Canadian literature is offered.

And in literature, is diversity even a goal in and of itself? Not exactly. English programs usually offer “literary landmark” courses meant to give students a skeleton outline of literary history before narrowing the scope in later years. There is special effort to include previously marginalized voices and perspectives. Students are exposed to Eloudah Equiano now, but weren’t always. Still, depth follows breadth. Find what you like, then hone in. There are courses (and PhDs, and lifetimes…) devoted entirely to Moby Dick and Ulysses.

Flaubert said, “what a scholar one might be if one knew well only half a dozen books,” which is incidentally the number Gilmour teaches. Indeed, I didn’t read Proust, Tolstoy, or Chekov until after completing my English degree. I could have really used Gilmour earlier.

An English program imbued entirely by Gilmour’s sensibilities wouldn’t be balanced, but the UofT doesn’t have this problem. He is not a symbol of the systemic bias infesting their campuses but is rather eccentric here.

Of course he isn’t the only one teaching male authors, but Gilmour is not a full-time professor, and is an outlier in the sense that he’s a non-academic who achieved commercial success as a writer. This complements a more traditional program.

Academic holders of PhDs can be excellent teachers, of course, but learning literature from a successful practitioner of it offers a unique perspective. Gilmour was blamed for not having a PhD, even as progressives are questioning the value, the necessity, and the commoditisation of school. I had a back and forth with a professor on this issue who felt PhD-less Gilmour wasn’t as qualified as her to teach. As if his having written successful novels has no bearing on his ability to teach novels successfully.

So yes, his teaching methods took a beating even though the article reveals very little about his actual teaching. Some disqualified his literary opinion because he cherished no women writer apart from Woolf. For what it’s worth, students on Rate My Professor describe his class as challenging, demanding, and advise reading the books twice in order to prepare for intense discussions. One former student of his, a female, wrote to the National Post and said he’s getting misrepresented. She greatly enjoyed his class. The main complaint was his contention that experience talking to a camera made him a natural teacher. Maybe his critics feel literature is best taught by reflecting on the novel.

Generally a douchebag

Many felt Gilmour was entitled to his beliefs, but didn’t appreciate his gruff, irreverent manner, or just thought he was an asshole. He didn’t come across that way to me in the interview.

The interview shocked because there was no pre-scripted, pre-approved fluff contrived to appeal to a mass audience amid the release of his latest novel. Many people felt, essentially, “of course he’s free to think what he wants, but why did he have to say it?” Interviews are almost always PR, so maybe it’s impossible to even comprehend that a person might actually conceive of an interview as an occasion to speak honestly. That the interview was actually an interview shocked people.

Our cultural judgements are mostly shaped and determined by commercial success, which real literary opinions are indifferent to. Nabokov trashes accepted writers like Faulkner, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Bellow, and more. Today we’d accuse him of cultivating a public image as a contrarian. It’s unthinkable that writers so popular and entrenched in both the public mind and the canon can seriously be considered bad writers. No, it’s possible! If you read why he loves who he loves, his criticism makes sense. 19th century Russian literary culture presupposed this type of honesty and conviction. Our Canadian tendency to water-down opinions lest it offend a writer or a reader it would be adjudged infantile and decidedly not serious, if not totally incomprehensible.

Chabon, Nabokov, Gilmour and probably countless others have professed a preference for male writers. This isn’t a repudiation of all women, just a preference. Either there is no thing called “female” or “male” writing and only quality matters, which suggests it’s not problematic to have six quality male writers so long as they are indeed high quality, or there is a thing called “male” and “female” writing, and Gilmour and others are allowed to have a preference. I believe the former, but despite all the noise, I suspect Gilmour would subscribe to that too. Nabokov wrote that he’s prejudiced against female writers (though he taught Austen) and said, “there are only two kinds of books—bedside and wastebasket.”

The main thing is to have a literary discussion about the book, not a political one about the author’s identity. Notions of multiculturalism and privilege are fine topics for discussion, of course, but literature is indifferent to it unless it’s fused with something fiercely, hugely individual—Invisible Man is much greater art than Native Son, though their social worth is about equal.

People around the world were outraged when Gilmour voiced his literary opinion in a literary magazine that sought to interview the literature professor about his books because they read literature through the lens of social concern and consumerism.

Gilmour got blamed for debasing art with financial concern. Keeler asked if he’d like anything plugged. Gilmour mentions awkwardly that he just got nominated for the Giller, and to plug it “if it’s going to sell any books.” He says he was nominated for many awards but that he lost a lot of them, and all he needs is the cheque. This made one commenter *gag*, which elicited 46 thumbs up.  Presumably none of these 47 vaunted souls are working writers who need cheques. “Write for love, publish for money” is a very old saying. Nobody can opt out of money. Talented, passionate artists can’t just show grocers their manuscript in exchange for food.

People were eager to read the Gilmour interview with disgust, so they did. Calling someone oppressive or insufficiently moral is a serious charge not to be thrown around loosely. It’s all too possible to be a very moral person and to find nothing remarkable about Gilmour’s comments. I wish people were as engaged in the actual books themselves, so we could talk about Swann and Pierre instead of just Gilmour.

PR

We’re not used to frank exchanges of actual opinion because mainstream cultural discourse concerns locating the best 3,000 hamburgers in the city. It is PR-based, and tolerates criticism only because there needs to be some criticism lest the review stand out as a blatant commercial. So this isn’t true criticism, just a prop there to support a lie. Read about the “cattle battle,” or who in the city is best dressed and where you can buy their clothes. There’s no shortage of articles advising you how best to part with your money. Good journalism about our buffoon mayor is dismissed as a leftard conspiracy. Predatory, spiritually empty consumerism and lazy political judgements offends my sensibilities.

Even if the opposite is true, and he expected a PR frenzy, this doesn’t mean it wasn’t his real literary opinion. There’s a difference between doing something phony to incite a media storm and knowing your real opinion will cause one.
Saul Bellow coined the term “low seriousness” to describe the way people need to be instructed to laugh when they get in a literary mode, and then feel the urge to dissect the comedy. Many people feel literature and laughter don’t go together, and that was made more potent here by also combining with gender politics.

About Jeff Halperin

Jeff Halperin was a city hall reporter at the Toronto Standard, but his writing has also appeared at Maclean's, the Grid and elsewhere. He also writes on literature, Leafs, music, chess and more. Jeff's website is [here] For other PP posts by Jeff click [here]

  • da kid deebee

    hi jeff,

    well thought and strongly felt article, but – and i’m a straight white guy – i think you missed one of the basic presumptions that created the controversy. let’s take Gilmour’s syllabus for a class he taught last year, VIC162, which begins “The purpose of this course is to look at two extreme forms of human experience: the romantic imagination and what might be called “urban rot.”” if he’s only offering male writers – which is the case, he lists only Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Truman Capote, Elmore Leonard, and Henry Miller – then we would be hard-pressed to suggest that this schema of “human experience” includes women. might we not expect that women might have a different experience of “romantic imagination” or “urban rot”? it would be difficult to assert that they do not without first studying texts that put forth those views.

    i realize this is digging a bit deeper into Gilmour’s praxis than the majority of the commenters, but if his pedagogical objectives are a deeper understanding of the human experience and of the practice of creating and refining the novel, then he’s set his classes to only achieve 50% of his goals.

    here is the link to the syllabus: http://www.vic.utoronto.ca/students/academics/vicone/Streams_of_Study/Northrop_Frye_Stream/VIC_162_Course_Syllabus.htm

    • JDHalperin

      Oh it’s so nice to see sober online commentary about Gilmour!

      OK, if that is a presumption I missed maybe I just view literature too differently than most. The notion of an all encompassing thing called “male experience” or “female experience” is impossible. Not only can’t one man or woman write it, but such a thing itself doesn’t exist.

      The objection you raise supposes that women can’t enjoy these great writers because the male authors’ schema doesn’t align with theirs. This may be true of second-rate writers, but high caliber writing is above that. More importantly, I don’t think literature has a duty or a job apart from being great writing. I am not very interested in looking at these books from this perspective, but that’s without hearing a lecture/seeing the questions, so I’ll suspend that doubt.

      I conceive of writing as a fiercely individual, idiosyncratic process, the pure and total translation of one person’s imagination (which can bear on society or not, depending on the specific imagination) into words, sentences, chapters, a novel.

      The result is either good or bad, but generalizations about male and female perspectives creeping in start falling away the more we inspect a particular work. Unless the book is explicitly about that. I haven’t seen this syllabus until now and unlike the other writers he listed I’m unfamiliar with these, so hard to comment.

      I really doubt Gilmour would ever flatly say female experiences don’t matter, or that his class encompasses human experience in its entirety! Also, “urban rot” is a hilarious expression! Does this address your point? It’s easier to talk about this stuff than to write…