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2013 Villain: David Gilmour

Nominated for: sending women writers "down the hall."

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 2 p.m. on January 1. At 4 p.m. we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

villain david gilmour jeremy kai

Emily Keeler has written dozens of installments of a column called Shelf Esteem for Hazlitt Magazine: informal, monologue-like pieces in which writers talk about their book collections. Her subjects have included Gail Scott, Chuck Klosterman, Zoe Whittall, and Carl Wilson; each piece offered a glimpse into a writer’s habits of collection, organization, obsession, and purging.

Then, on September 25, Keeler published an interview with novelist and University of Toronto lecturer David Gilmour. While discussing the collection of books at his Victoria College office Gilmour made a series of incendiary, often offensive, and frequently baffling remarks. He told Keeler that he is “not interested in teaching books by women,” and that “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.” (He did allow that he had a soft spot for Virginia Woolf.) “I teach only the best,” he proclaimed. And then, of course, there was this: “If you want women writers, go down the hall.”

Gilmour’s bizarre interview ignited a social media firestorm, and with it a landslide of responses, including letters from the University of Toronto Student Union, and from colleagues. Students arranged a protest.

Gilmour’s response: dig himself in deeper. In one particularly striking interview he said that Keeler was “a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself,” implying she misquoted him and misconstrued his statements. (Hazlitt responded by posting the unedited transcript.) He also claimed that his words were “tossed off” without much thought because he “was speaking to a Frenchman” on the phone during the interview.

Gilmour’s near universal dismissal of work by authors who are not white, middle-aged, heterosexual men is idiotic for reasons too numerous to express, and made all the worse because he is an instructor. He came across as even more tone-deaf and ill-informed, however, because of the present climate in the Canadian literary community, which is increasingly aware of this kind of discrimination, and attempting to combat it more actively and openly than before.

For becoming the symbol of everything that Canadian publishing and literature is pushing back against as it seeks to become more equitable and inclusive, David Gilmour is one of our Villains of 2013.



  • The Man With No Name

    Gilmour isn’t dismissive of non-white male writers, he just teaches what he loves. That’s no different than the English prof who spend half the year making us read slave narratives. I’d rather have a teacher teach what they love than adhere to some absurd politically driven idea of what they should teach. And students could do worse than be taught Tolstoy and Fitzgerald.

    • Still_Waters3

      He absolutely was dismissive of female writers by saying he only teaches the best, and none of the best are women. It is one thing to teach personal favourites, but as an educator, he should also be teaching his students to search for their own personal favourites and to recognise writing of quality and significance even if it isn’t a personal favourite. The fact he dismisses an entire gender of writers smacks of incredible ignorance for a supposedly learned man.

      • The Man With No Name

        I’ve heard him give glowing recommendations of female writers, so he’s not dismissive of female writers. He likes and respects them, just doesn’t connect with them the same way he does other writers WHO HAPPEN TO BE male. Their gender isn’t the reason he likes them.

        He’s a visiting lecturer, so he doesn’t have the same responsibility as a regular prof. He thinks Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Fitzgerald are the best, so he teaches them. Ranking them at the top isn’t exactly controversial.

        The people who attack him seem to know nothing about him. His favorite writers are men. Big deal. He can teach what he wants. I don’t hear anyone screaming about female teachers who don’t teach any male writers (I had one of those).

        • Still_Waters3

          I fully admit I don’t know the man personally, and have never taken a class with him. But I, like most others, have only his own public comments with which to assess him. If he did not speak accurately on behalf of his own ideas, then that is his mistake, not mine. Blame him for that. Otherwise, I’m glad to hear that he does appreciate all writers. He just needs to be more careful about how he presents his ideas in public.

          • The Man With No Name

            No, people need to lose their addiction to outrage.

            “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.” (He did allow that he had a soft spot for Virginia Woolf.) “I
            teach only the best.”

            There is nothing that a reasonable person could find offensive about that.

            He teaches what he loves.
            None of them are by women.
            He teaches the best (and none, according to him, are by women). What’s wrong with that? Odds are most would agree with him, that the best novels have been written by men. Aside from the Brontes, Elliot, Austen, and Shelly, the most highly regarded authors are men. He didn’t say women are bad writers, just that the best are men. Big clucking deal. That’s about as controversial as saying the best hockey players are men.

          • Still_Waters3

            By characterizing “the best”, which is a highly subjective term, as men, you and he are presupposing that your personal standards are the only ones by which to measure literature, or hockey, for that matter. I guess female writers and hockey players should know before they start that they will have an uphill battle to impress either of you. Fine and dandy, as a purely personal preference. But, to my mind, there is no need to characterize writing in terms of gender or race or culture at all. Good writing should be blind to all of that. Before reading the professor’s comments, I had never even thought about whether I preferred male, female, white, black, Chinese, Russian, Swedish or British etc. authors. Even now, I still can’t say that I prefer one type of author more than another. Truth is, all are capable of producing something I like and something I don’t like. The fact that Prof Gilmour felt the need to frame the debate in terms of gender in the first place is what I question, and the fact that you feel the need to respond by implying that I and others who question his comments are addicted to some sort of faux outrage actually proves the point of the criticism.

          • The Man With No Name

            There was no debate, he just said he was teaching men because he thinks they’re the best. And he does qualify it by saying that they resonate with him, which is an admission of subjectivity. So there.

            Hockey was a bad example because male players are objectively the best. That’s not debatable. But it’s also widely accepted that the best authors are male. Not because they’re men, but because women are new to writing compared to men so the numbers are against them. So his preference goes along with the consensus.

          • Still_Waters3

            Again, you miss the point. Whose consensus is it that the best authors are men? The male-dominated publishing industry? The critical commentary which has historically focused on works by male authors? Someone doesn’t have to come right out and say “Women are bad writers” in order for the bias to exist. It is shown in much more covert ways, and comments like Gilmour’s perpetuate this type of hidden, but highly patronizing, bias. The problem isn’t that women don’t write in high enough numbers to match men, it’s that the publishers and critics have historically given them short shrift, based partly on the “consensus” framed by people like Gilmour. The point is that we should be defining personal literary preferences in terms of the works themselves, not the gender, race or sexual orientation of the authors. If Gilmour had just left it at, “I only teach the books that I love,” we wouldn’t be having this discussion. This will be my last post on this, so thanks for the discussion.

          • dsmithhfx

            You’re not a Man, you’re an ignorant baboon.

          • The Man With No Name

            How so?

            He likes female writers but his favorites happen to be men because they resonate with him so he teaches them. He’s pretty much teaching canonical writers, so he’s fulfilling his duty as a teacher, and there’s nothing radical about his choices. He’s not teaching misogynistic writers, nor did he say that women were bad writers. In now way did he disparage the ability of women to write. He even explains his preference and says that they resonate with him more as a middle aged heterosexual man.

            That’s no different from women who prefer and teach female authors in a non-gender specific class. Big deal. It’s about the books, not the gender of the authors. Better to teach Chekhov than Munro.