National Embarrassment/Bore Sparks Some Great Literary Criticism

Yesterday we learned from David Gilmour that being in conversation with “a young woman” means one doesn’t need to take one’s words seriously—but then Gilmour also taught us that literary “seriousness” is just for straight white dudes. Education’s great, eh? I can hear Jane Austen guffawing into a carefully hemmed sleeve in the sky.

A lot has already been said on author and University of Toronto literature instructor David Gilmour’s ridiculous comments to Emily M. Keeler posted to Hazlitt yesterday, and on his inadequate and offensive way of “apologizing” for them. (Apparently speaking over one’s shoulder is now just cause for not thinking.)

Major Canadian and international outlets are all covering the Internet fury that has ensued, from the CBC to the Atlantic Wire, from Cosmopolitan to Gawker (that famous Toronto watchdog). Collections of Twitter outrage have been assembled, and a protest is being organized on Facebook.

Jane “Serious” Austen

In one of my favourite responses, York literary geography professor instructor and author of Imagining Toronto Amy Lavender Harris said on Facebook, “David Gilmour bores me, and he should bore you, too […] if we’re not going to ignore him entirely, ridicule is a far better response than outrage.”

Amid the clamour it was also good to find Globe and Mail Books Editor Jared Bland’s reflection on how wide reading can actually be taught, and University of Toronto English professor Holger Syme’s thoughtful account of what real scholarly teaching looks like.

These eloquent bits of shot-from-the-hip literary criticism are reminders of how pedagogy ought to always be a crucial focus for literary critics both in journalism and academe.

On the topic I like Elaine Showalter’s book Teaching Literature. In it she recounts the controversy Jane Tompkins caused in the nineties by suggesting that talking about teaching literature was like talking about sex—that you were supposed to know how to do both without ever discussing them in polite society. As readers we could all stand to talk more about what teaching reading should look like.

Hearing about Gilmour’s terrible perspective has at least given us a chance to push forward a better conversation about what it means to read well, honestly, widely, ethically, and about what it should mean to “teach literature.”

So here’s to the world’s millions of less boring writers and teachers, and to reading them and listening to what they have to say whether or not they mirror what you see as your own glorious self.

Oh and I think add/drop period is over but any refugees from Gilmour’s University of Toronto course on fiction can feel free to come “down the hall” to mine. We’re talking about Ann Radcliffe on Monday. Yesss.

[Full disclosure if it seems worthwhile: Keeler profiled me too in her ShelfEsteem series—an honour.]


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