War and Peace // David Gilmour

Maybe only the first word applies….

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

― James Baldwin

The first and last time I purchased a novel by David Gilmour I was 18, in my first year at the University of Toronto, and in the process of discovering the dubious pleasures of the remainders tables in The World’s Biggest Bookstore, then only a short walk from my apartment. The book was Sparrow Nights. I think I must have paid something like $2.99 for the hardcover, which I’d thought then was attractive but have come to realize now looks anonymously like almost every other mid-level Canadian fiction title released in that decade. I didn’t know who David Gilmour was, not exactly, but I knew his name, and that was enough for me, just beginning to navigate contemporary literary fiction, with only Life of Pi and Midnight’s Children under my belt. I was one of those people who loved books but didn’t have the first idea about what to read or where to even go in the bookstore, the kind of person who buys a ton of Wordsworth Classics on sale and regrets it later because they eventually realize there are better, more sensual or authoritative, editions out there.

Now I think I must have heard Gilmour’s name on the CBC or read it in some faintly-
praising review in The Globe and Mail. It seems unimaginable that I could have heard about him any other way, because I had grown up in what was essentially a moated compound in the middle of a rural area, my parents didn’t read the books I was interested in, my friends didn’t read at all, and I was either too scared or too indifferent to solicit the attention of the few teachers in high school who might have been able to provide reading suggestions. This strategy had worked for me before: I purchased Sheila Heti’s Ticknor based merely on the fact that she had a NOW or Eye cover story, and that book had blown my fertile mind, greatly expanding my conception of what contemporary (and Canadian) fiction could offer. Sparrow Nights, unfortunately, had nowhere near the same effect.

I couldn’t tell you much about the book. I know that it was about a Toronto based middle-aged professor who frequented massage parlours and wanted to date his young female students (or was currently dating, or had). I know that I felt offended, or more likely repulsed, by his portrayal of women and by the thoughts and actions of the male protagonist. There were long stretches where nothing happened, not aesthetically or intellectually or emotionally, long stretches where I considered giving up the book, which is almost remarkable, because Sparrow Nights is not long. I read it in one weekend, the last weekend of reading week, I think, mostly in public areas around the Hart House, reclined on couches in deserted hallways, my reading only occasionally interrupted by tours that caused me to lurch up into a sitting position out of some homage to sociality. I was lonely, and on medication that made me want to kill myself, and reading Sparrow Nights only made me feel worse (unlike Ticknor, which is also a book about alienation and loneliness, but which I’d found emotionally comforting).

I finished Sparrow Nights anyway, but I don’t remember how it ends. I would check my copy, but I left it in a box out in front of my apartment many years ago. Though I remember reading “My Life with Tolstoy” in the Summer 2006 issue of The Walrus, and though it convinced me to revisit and complete War and Peace, I didn’t think much about Gilmour until many years later, after I’d returned to the University of Toronto to finish my aborted degree. A friend of mine was taking a class with him—the same class that is “down the hall” from nearly every other literature class on U of T’s campus. She seemed impressed that he was a writer, maybe because she wanted to be one too. She told me that he was teaching a lot of Roth, and that he believed that writing should come directly from one’s own experience. Warning bells went off in my head, and I told her the plot of Sparrow Nights.

David Gilmour’s recent unapologetic comments about only wanting to teach “serious heterosexual guys” shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who was paying attention. The fact is that few people were. A common refrain on literary websites this week has been “David Gilmour, who you might know if you knew anything about Canadian literature…” If you knew anything about David Gilmour, or had read any of his books, you would have already realized what the rest of the world just discovered about him. My Facebook feed was flooded by former students of his, mostly women, who had felt personally offended not only by his selection of material but by his treatment of them in class. Why did it take Gilmour’s implication of himself for this to become a story?

While I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms that have been lobbed at Gilmour, I join Mike Meginnis in being suspicious of the level of outrage that has been expressed, especially by news agencies that had no idea who David Gilmour was before this recent incident. I understand it is the internet’s nature to be outraged, and if it gets Gilmour fired, then it will at least have had some positive effect. But all of the outrage seems to be masking failed (or nonexistent) institutional controls that allowed someone like Gilmour to so arrogantly teach a nearly entirely male syllabus in the first place.

Earlier I mentioned that Gilmour’s article in The Walrus caused me to return to War and Peace. That’s true, just as it’s also true that I first encountered Sheila Heti because of a few pages in an alt-weekly. I am grateful for having encountered both. Reading should be omnivorous and wide-ranging. I have always thought that one of the points of reading was to discover different voices that, even through the relation of experiences that might be alien to you, engender some common feeling of humanity, so you learn not only that others are not very different from yourself, but to feel less alone. But in his recent comments, Gilmour explained that he was primarily interested only in fiction written by men like him: white, middle-aged writers. This is a distressingly narrow-minded view. Not only is Gilmour evidently a misogynist—which should be more than enough to threaten his position as an educator of women—but he is also, apparently, a bad reader. Might it not be that one follows from the other? In which order might be more difficult puzzle to decipher, but it seems natural that someone who only reads and loves fiction written by male writers would have a distorted view of women and what “role” they should play in his life.

Instead of offering more outrage, however, I’d like to suggest something else. Why don’t we just read more fiction by women? And not only more fiction from women, but more books from ethnicities, cultures, and sexualities different from our own? Roxane Gay recently posted a list of 41 books she says cause her to ask herself questions about what it means to be human, books she believes Gilmour should read. Their authors don’t belong to any particular category—they are writers, and they are human beings. If more people read the way Gay suggests, not only would we have fewer David Gilmours, we’d have less occasion to be outraged by them, because they wouldn’t be in position to outrage us.

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