Saturday, 28 September 2013

Editing women out

There's been a bit of an uproar in feminist-writerland this week, after the author and lecturer David Gilmour (not the one from Pink Floyd) said he didn't want to teach books by women writers.

The Canadian novelist, who teaches modern short fiction at the University of Toronto, told online magazine Hazlitt: "I’m not interested in teaching books by women." He suggests his students "go down the hall" to learn about women writers from someone else - presumably a woman.

Leaving women out of modern fiction

Modern fiction, in academic terms, extends from about 1900 to today. There are a lot of women writers during that period. Bloody loads. The only reason I haven't started listing them is that I wouldn't know where to begin, or to stop.

There might be an argument for leaving women writers out of courses on 17th and 18th century writing. But leaving women writers out of a course on modern fiction is ridiculous.

Gilmour does concede there is one female writer worth her salt. He says: "Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer." How very open minded of him.

Missing the point

You can read the original David Gilmour interview here. After the furore it provoked, he decided to do a follow-up, defending his position: 'There isn't a racist or a sexist bone in my body'.

The sad thing is, the second interview didn't really help. In fact, it showed just how much he misses the point.

Gilmour sees literature written by women as a niche area, separate from everything else. He siphons off 'women writers' as a particular area of expertise that other people have, in the same way that university lecturers tend to specialise in a particular area - 19th century, 18th century etc. The thing is, women are half the population, we're not a niche interest - we're 50% of humanity.

Women are all over the place, you can't go to the library or buy a cappuccino without tripping over some of us. And women writers have long been an integral part of our literary tradition - from Jane Austen to Hilary Mantel.

Siphoning off 'women writers' as a separate and niche area of study suggests that women are a particular acquired taste, like crime fiction for instance. It also implies that female writers are not 'up there' with the greats, whom Gilmour lists as Tolstoy, Proust and Chekhov.

It would be odd to study Pride and Prejudice and Wolf Hall on the same course. Both books are written by women, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. It is unreasonable to group them into a special category of books by and for girls, but that is what Gilmour does.

"I'm not sexist"

My favourite part of the two interviews is when Gilmour says: "anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything." It's the literary equivalent of saying 'I'm not racist/homophobic because some of my friends are black/gay'.

His dismissal of women writers is reminiscent of the Victorian culture which led some of our greatest (female) writers, the Brontes and George Eliot, to assume male pseudonyms so that their work would be taken seriously. Aren't we a little beyond that now?

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