Why snubbing books by women is not the same as snubbing motorbikes

Here in Canada, a literary and pedagogical storm is a-brewing. A University of Toronto lecturer, David Gilmour, himself a novelist, gave an interview to Emily M Keeler of Hazlitt magazine, in which he explained that he’s not interested in teaching books by women. According to Gilmour, he only teaches the best. “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them,” he explains, “If you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.”

If you’re planning to read Gilmour’s apology interview to restore your faith in North American university culture – don’t. He vilifies Keeler, as “a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself or something”. (In response, Hazlitt made a full transcript of the interview available.) Also, he explains that he wouldn’t usually apologise, but his publisher is afraid the sexist remarks might affect sales of his current book. Hey Gilmour? Any places left on your “Crap Apologies 101” course?

This story has affected me for two reasons. First, I’ve just moved to Canada to take up a university post, and I’m in the process of devising new curriculums. Even with a gender consciousness that’s alive and kicking (and screaming and stamping), I’m finding it hard to achieve anything resembling gender balance in my courses. With something like an introduction to Irish theatre, this is understandable: I need to teach the canon, the canon is largely historical, and women writers were systematically written out.

But things are changing now, right? Contemporary women writers are valued equally and the bodies of respected work that emerge from our enlightened era will be representative of this, right? Wrong – I’m struggling to include women’s voices on the contemporary Irish theatre course I’m devising for next year, because the vast majority of celebrated living Irish playwrights are male. Speaking to colleagues in other disciplines, similar pictures emerge.

The second reason I’m finding this story affecting is internet dating. Yes, internet dating. I’m new in town, and I’ve joined a site for the first time. Having indulged in outrageous fanfaronade on my profile page and started shopping for mates, I noticed that hardly any of the other singletons on sale – male or female – listed fiction by women in their “favourite books” section. Were they afraid they’d catch pregnancy or menopause from female writers or something? I changed my profile to stipulate that I only wanted to hear from people who read books by women.

Then something weird happened. People started messaging me about their relationships with gender and literature. Like, lots of people. The messages ranged from good (the person who wrote to say that they’d changed their profile to honour female authors), to bad (the person who listed six male writers on their page, but explained they didn’t define themselves around literature), to ugly (the person who said “I like motorcycles, but I don’t expect you to like motorcycles – why do I have to like books by women?” Answer: because motorcycles are not one half of the human race).

People wrote to tell me that, in spite of their all male book lists, they didn’t discriminate when assessing literature. These were just the books that they, personally, liked best. Ergo, I was being judgmental. I could have ignored them, but my pedagogical urges are just too strong. I found myself explaining that, of course, I didn’t imagine anyone was thinking “screw those silly scribbling bitches, they can’t teach me nothing, yo” when filling out online dating profiles. I explained that we live in a society that teaches people to value male thought, art, and leadership above female thought, art and leadership. I explained the difference between active and passive discrimination.

Four people wrote to ask for book recommendations. I looked at their profiles, scoped what other fiction they were into, and suggested titles. So now I’m spending my free time creating gender conscious reading lists for strangers on the internet. All I wanted was a date.

My cyber adventures are teaching me that faith in narratives of progress and meritocracy has dulled people’s abilities to perceive sexism in literary culture. We need to flag prejudice, not ignore it. The canons of our time are not going to represent diverse voices unless we consciously intervene. When people like Gilmour tell us that they don’t respect literature by women, we need to be brave enough to call this what it is: not personal preference or taste, but sexism. Whether active or passive, it is discrimination.

We need to educate: to honour the female writers that we love, and share their work. That’s why, no matter how much extra time it takes, nor how much art I need to pull from the fringes, I’m creating a gender balanced contemporary Irish theatre course. It’s also why, this weekend, I’m giving a stranger The Poisonwood Bible on our first date. Emer O’Toole © Guardian News and Media 2013

Image – AFP