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English Studies, R.I.P.

Posted By Janice Fiamengo On October 3, 2013 @ 12:20 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 54 Comments

The small world that is Canadian literary-academic culture underwent convulsions last week when a novelist named David Gilmour, a part-time English instructor at the University of Toronto, announced in an interview that he doesn’t love women and Chinese writers enough to teach them in his fiction course, and that he prefers books by “very serious heterosexual guys.” He listed as his favourite “guy guys” Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, and Philip Roth. The one exception was Virginia Woolf, but he didn’t teach her because of poor student response.

The furor over his words was predictable, and right on cue. Various outraged students and faculty members at the University of Toronto came forward to denounce Gilmour’s putative bigotry (in the world of the politically correct, “not loving” is little different from “hating”). An anti-Gilmour protest was held September 27th on the university grounds next to the statue of a former principal of U of T’s Victoria College, literary critic Northrop Frye; Frye’s statue was dressed up in a pink boa and tiara to demonstrate the gender daring of the protestors. The progressivist Toronto Star newspaper wrote to Angela Esterhammer, current principal of Vic, asking “what action, if any, the college would take” against Gilmour, and reported as significant the fact that he would not be fired. The Twitter world burst with sizzling insights, with Natalie Zed, for instance, reminding her friends that “David Gilmour said this shit aloud. How many more just think and do what he does quietly?” A bookstore and library in Waterloo cancelled their invitation to Gilmour for a speaking event, claiming that his “remarkably impolitic” statement was not one they could “afford to be associated with.”

President Esterhammer, too, wasted no time in distancing herself from Gilmour, affirming that he “expressed his views about teaching literature in a careless and offensive manner,” stressing that he was not typical of Victoria College, which is widely lauded for the “range and diversity” of its course offerings, and pointing out that “Faculty members, students, alumni, and the administration of Victoria College have made clear that they do not share [his] views about novels by women or about other groups of literary works.” It’s good to know that no one is standing out from the assembly of the just. A friend of mine has suggested that Gilmour may have been deliberately inflammatory and attention-seeking rather than “careless” in the interview, though if so, he is certainly regretting his flamboyance now. But whether or not the bad-boy remarks were designed to bring Gilmour’s name into the spotlight, his colleagues have certainly stepped up with alacrity to play their mortified and righteous roles—and their theatrics show all too clearly what a farce the study of English has generally become, even (or especially) at one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.

Perhaps the most self-dramatizing hyperbole came from the acting head of the University of Toronto’s English department, Paul Stevens, who wrote in a staff memo that he was “appalled and deeply upset” by Gilmour’s comments, which “constitute[d] a travesty of all we stand for.” Obviously unembarrassed by the overstatement, he also claimed to be “pursuing the matter further today”—whether to have Gilmour forced into gender sensitivity training or some other blasphemy sanction is not clear. His outrage was nearly matched by that of Holger Syme, Chair of the Department of English and Drama at U of T’s Mississauga campus, who wrote a blog post casting Gilmour out of the charmed circle of the intellectual elect: Gilmour “does not talk or think like a professor of literature,” he sniffed indignantly, because “Good teaching requires empathy—an effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you.” Leaving aside the question of whether some “effort to understand” might be required to appreciate nineteenth-century Russian and French writers, one wonders whether Syme would have delivered himself of the same caustic putdown of a Canadian aboriginal scholar teaching only other Canadian aboriginal authors or a gay black man teaching only gay blacks.

Many other concerned U of T citizens joined the fray. Gillian Jerome, co-founder of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, asserted that Gilmour represents Canada’s “deeply sexist and racist culture.” Anne Thériault found it “almost exciting” that such blatant sexism had been expressed so that a discussion on academic misogyny could be pursued. A PhD student in the department, Miriam Novick, called for Victoria College to “seriously reconsider [Gilmour’s] continued employment.” Associate Chair of the English Department Nick Mount opined that it was “not fair to students” to advertise a course on “a variety of international authors” and then to present only “dead white guys.”

So what exactly are the feminists howling about? When such literary masters as Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekhov are dismissed by a professor of English as “dead white guys,” it’s clear that a blanket anti-male animus—of the sort only a feminist could love—has overtaken the ivory tower. Contrary to the self-righteous huffing and puffing of the advocates of gender justice, Gilmour’s off-hand statements highlighted not misogynist tyranny but the lockdown by academic feminism on even the most flippant and marginal deviations from the correct line. As Margaret Wente remarked in the Saturday Globe, “… only in a world where people are manufacturing oppression would a middle-aged professor who happens to prefer Henry Miller to Alice Munro … be vilified as an agent of the patriarchy.” Merely to note the glaring contradiction in the condemnations is to see their hypocrisy: on any campus across North America, one can find courses galore that focus exclusively on women writers, Aboriginal writers, lesbian writers, and so on—with nary a white heterosexual male in sight; and no one censures them for lack of “range and diversity.” Whole programs such as Women’s Studies are devoted, in fact, to slandering white men, and almost no one in the university community raises an objection.

What the fracas does clearly reveal—through the uniformity of response to Gilmour and the intellectual shallowness of reactions—are the dying gasps of a once magnificent, now morally bankrupt and pusillanimous, academic enterprise.

The study of literature—which was, let it be said right away, largely the study of literature by white male authors—once saw itself as part of the search for universal truths through reflection on the masterworks of great authors. Though undoubtedly at times stuffy and hidebound, it was also serious and intellectually substantial, attracting great thinkers such as Lionel Trilling, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, Edmund Wilson, and University of Toronto’s Northrop Frye himself. Today’s academics seem, in comparison, of vastly diminished moral and mental stature, fussing in chorus about “diversity” as if it were the only possible value to be gained from reading, and exhibiting in their own remarks no significant diversity at all. It is remarkable that not a single one of these academics, despite the protection of tenure, came forward to defend Gilmour or at least to rebut his more hysterical detractors. Is there not one with courage and common sense?

And of all those so eager to damn him, not one could be bothered to rebut his statements on their own, literary, terms: to show why the male authors that he preferred were not, actually, better than the women authors he slighted; to offer counter-judgements about literary value; to confirm, in short, that great literature matters to literary scholars (only journalist Barbara Kay—and, to a different end, Rex Murphy—dared to reflect on the gender of literary genius). It’s not only that academic cowardice and self-interest remain at an all-time high but also that interest in literature as literature, apart from its sociological import, long ago ceased to have any place in departments supposedly dedicated to its study. The titan Northrop Frye—he of the statue decorated with a feather boa by the protestors, few of whom likely know his (now largely untaught) works—defined major writers by the capacity for their readers to “grow up inside their work without ever being aware of a circumference.” It’s unlikely that such an idea would get a serious hearing at the University of Toronto today. Having lost faith in the discipline they are (over) paid to teach, literature instructors have enthusiastically embraced their roles as the guardians of progressive pieties about women and the Chinese.

This is not to suggest that Gilmour himself is any kind of resistance hero. He has long since apologized for his remarks and will almost certainly never make any such again.

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