No Women Writers On My Syllabus, Professor Says

Novelist David Gilmour wants us to know that he only teachers literature by “serious heterosexual guys” and that University of Toronto hired him to do so, even though it usually “doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate.” The writer made these comments in a September 25th interview with Emily M. Keeler for Shelf Esteem, a weekly feature about the contents of writers’ libraries on Random House Canada’s site. The backlash on Twitter and elsewhere was immediate.

By the end of the day, Gilmour was telling the National Post that his remarks had been “tossed off” and taken out of context and that there is “not a racist or sexist bone” in his body. Random House Canada published the full transcript of Gilmour’s remarks and emphasized noted that these had been edited for the Shelf Esteem column. Keeler’s piece, said the publisher, had been written in an “as-told-to” style that is a “common journalistic format.”

Why Women Literature’s Doesn’t Have a Place on Gilmour’s Syllabus

Most of the writers on Gilmour’s syllabus for his classes on modern short fiction are American or Russian. As he explained, “I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach”; when he was “given this job” at the University of Toronto, he said he would only teach the people that [he] truly, truly love[s]. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”

Every teacher makes her or his choices when compiling a syllabus for a course; Gilmour’s is apparently to “only teach stuff I love .” As he states, that means “mostly Russian and American authors” — Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Leo Tolskoy, Anton Chekhov (the last-mentioned being dubbed “the coolest guy in literature”). He does include one short story by Virginia Woolf but finds her “too sophisticated” for his students.

You Can’t Teach Modern Writers and Not Include Women

As he himself notes, Gilmour (who was recently nominated for the Giller Prize) is teaching at a major research university, the University of Toronto. By his own account, he is not your “average” professor.

Nonetheless, a course on “modern short fiction” taught to third- and fourth-year students at a major research university should provide a full account of that period’s writers — and the modern era is precisely the time when more women writers are getting published and when access to writers from beyond the borders of Europe was growing; when artists like Matisse and Picasso were encountering art from non-Western cultures and the influence of these was appearing in their art. For Gilmour to be teaching only “serious heterosexual guys” from Western countries (what about Lu Xun? Yasunari Kawabata? Katherine Mansfield?) offers students only a limited and biased view.

Gilmour does not purport to be a scholar or academic. He’s a writer and, as he also points out, was “trained in television.” He refers to himself as a “natural teacher,” noting that working on television taught him “how to talk to a camera” and that taking “to a room of students” is “the same thing.” He’s won awards for his writing including a book, “The Film Club,” that had a specifically didactic focus, teaching his son “about life and the world through film.”

Still, a university teacher needs to go beyond his or her own literary preferences and present students with the full picture. I am not the biggest fan of Roman history, but as the only classics professor at a small university, I make sure to teach a course about it every few years because students studying classics simply need to know about that topic — and about ancient Greek history and archaeology and women in the ancient world and a whole lot more. Sure, the literature we have from the ancient world is almost exclusively by male writers (some heterosexual and many not). Few texts by women have been preserved and that is all more the reason for studying what fragmented evidence remains about their lives.

Gilmour’s comments may have been intended to be “tongue in cheek” but they touched off a chord in anyone weary of being told that only certain writers — the “guy” ones — are “serious.” For someone teaching a course on “modern” literature, it’s a perspective that is thoroughly out-of-date — if not outright prehistoric.

Photo via Thinkstock


Jim V
Jim V9 months ago


Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago


Lorna Wood
Lorna Wood4 years ago

Must have been tough for him when Canadian ALICE MUNRO won the NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE.

Pia M.
Pia M4 years ago

Ok, one more comment. I made a mistake earlier with "University of Victoria" - of course it should be "Victoria College, University of Toronto". My bad.

Pia M.
Pia M4 years ago

Sorry, my comment was too long again. So, the course description for 'Love, Sex and Death in Short Fiction' is: "The object of the course is to allow students to see that their impressions of the world, their way of “seeing” it, even in their most private thoughts, is often identical to that of other people from other languages and other centuries."
"Other people from other languages and other centuries" being all white heterosexual male writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, writing in English or Russian? (With the exception of Virginia Woolf.) Oh how exotic!

Pia M.
Pia M4 years ago

Hi Margaret, I followed the discussion of a Facebook group 'Serious Heterosexual Guys for Serious Literary Scholarship', which organized a rally against Gilmour. Or rather, it was intended to show support to non-White, non-Heterosexual and non-Male writers. My information about Mr. Gilmour's courses comes primarily from the group discussion, but I also checked the course descriptions from the website of the University of Victoria. He teaches two courses, and the one titled 'Cultural Forms and their Meanings: Cinema, Literature & the Modern Mind (VIC 162H)' is in the requirements of Vic One program, Northrop Frye Stream. The course syllabus is here: Required reading list consists of Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Truman Capote, Elmore Leonard and Henry Miller.

The other course of Mr. Gilmour is called 'Love, Sex and Death in Short Fiction', course description here:
Reading list: Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, in addition to contemporary authors Philip Roth, David Bezmozgis and Raymond Carver. I find the description quite funny, considering how narrow the range of Mr. Gilmour's interests is: "The object of the course is to allow students to see that their impressions of the world, their way of “seeing” it, even in their most private thoughts, is often identical to tha

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman4 years ago

Pia M. writes "...But, the central thing here is that he's a professor of literature in a public university, a job he's held for seven years despite not having a PhD degree. ... "...Some commenters have said that students should just skip his courses if they're not happy about the subject. Unfortunately, Mr. Gilmour's course is in the requirements of Vic One program, Frye Stream. ...He teaches two courses, and neither of them are called "Modern White Heterosexual Male Writers" or "David Gilmour's Favourite Writers".

If what Pia M. writes is true, the University of Toronto should take a hard look at the situation. Requiring a course that's so narrow should not be part of a university curriculum.

Glenda L.
Glenda L4 years ago

who cares!! Just don't take his course.

Rose Becke4 years ago

I agree with Lone W