Lit Professor Who Doesn't Teach Books by Women Is Surprised That Offends People

David Gilmour, a Canadian author and professor at the University of Toronto, said in an interview published Wednesday that he "teach[es] only the best" writers. 

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David Gilmour, a Canadian author and professor at the University of Toronto, said in an interview published Wednesday that he "teach[es] only the best" writers. The best writers, by his estimation, do not include women. Or, he specifies, the Chinese. Nor does it include "much on the Canadian front." Predictably, these comments were not well-received. So Gilmour decided to explain himself in a second interview on Wednesday: "I'm absolutely surprised, but I’m also extremely sorry to hear that there are people who are really offended by it," he said. Gilmour also instructed his students to find another professor if they want to learn about female authors. "If you want women writers, you go down the hall," he said.

Gilmour has a new novel out called Extraordinary, and it's up for the Giller prize. In his apology, Gilmour notes that the book's protagonist is a woman, and that he hopes his apology will help smooth over any hard feelings between him and the potential readers of that book who were offended. But if Twitter is any judge, the response to his defense may have had the opposite effect:

For reference, here are Gilmour's original comments, the ones that caused trouble for him in the first place:

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. 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 the National Post's follow-up interview with the author, given to the publication's skeptical books editor, Gillman provides several excuses for his remarks, which he also believes were misinterpreted.. "It’s got nothing to do with any nationality, or racism, or heterosexuality," Gilmour says of his author choices. Here are some of the other reasons given:

He was speaking in French at the same time. "This was an interview I gave sort of over the shoulder. I was having a conversation, in French, with a colleague while this young woman was doing this interview. So these were very much tossed-off remarks," he said. He added that at the time, he probably got careless with his words because he was "more concerned about [his] French accent than [he was] in actuality what [he was] saying to her."

He teaches Truman Capote: "I’m the only guy in North America who teaches Truman Capote, and Truman Capote was not what you’d exactly call a real heterosexual guy. So I really don’t know what this is about." Later, Gilmour adds: "I think anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything."

Blame the journalist: Gilmour was interviewed by a woman, and he brings into question her motivations here, claiming that the remarks above were, mostly or partially, a joke. "This is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something," he says. "I assumed that the journalist in charge knew when I was joking, and knew when I wasn’t."

"Almost all my students are girls." But Gilmour says that this experience won't make him reconsider his syllabus. "If someone wants a course on Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, I could put it on my curriculum, but I won’t teach it as well and as passionately as some of the teachers down the hall." Meanwhile, someone has responded as Gilmour's woman down the hall. She's not interested in teaching books by David Gilmour. Gilmour, when pressed, names exactly two female authors he likes: Alice Munro and Virginia Woolf (notably, that omits fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood).

Like some other high-profile professionals who have said careless or sensitive things in a public forum, Gilmour would just like us to get to know him better before judging. "There isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body, and everyone who knows me knows it," he explains. The intent of his words, he emphasizes again and again, were misunderstood. But there's little room for Gilmour to talk around his very direct remarks on the value of female writers, and what that says to his apparently woman-filled classrooms. His comments touch a nerve, in his industry and outside of it, one that his call for understanding here will likely do little to correct.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.