Last week, college professor and novelist David Gilmour declared that he’s not interested in teaching the work of female writers. He doesn’t “love [them] enough to teach them,” he told Random House of Canada’s Hazlitt blog (the full transcript of the interview became available here following Gilmour’s later backpedaling). “If you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys.” It’s tempting to regard Gilmour’s statements as isolated, the kind of declaration only a certain out-of-touch breed of old-school academic could make. But his remarks had another echo, and a more insidious one: that there are dudes who only read other dudes and don’t even realize it.
You probably know some. I certainly do, and a lot of them are smart, well-meaning people, men who have college degrees and respect the women in their lives and aren’t troglodytes. Unlike Gilmour, these guys don’t set out to be willfully ignorant — nobody is burning Alice Munro collections on a pyre. But they do not read women. They don’t have books by female writers on their shelves; their OkCupid profiles list only Chuck Klosterman, John Updike, Philip Roth as favorites; when they recommend you something for your next Amtrak trip, it’s an Erik Larson or a Malcolm Gladwell and never once a Karen Russell. (And, to a one, they do not appreciate having this fact pointed out, however gently; there comes a lot of spluttering and cries of “Wait, no, look, I have this Flannery O’Connor collection somewhere in the basement of my parents’ house!”) It’s a small subset of the population, but not nearly as small as it should be.
Adelle Waldman captured this attitude pitch-perfectly in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., her debut novel about a 30ish-year-old male writer living in Brooklyn:
Over the years, various women had complained that almost all the writers he admired were not only dead and white but male. Although this was pointed out to him with prosecutorial glee, Nate didn’t think it meant all that much. Women had faced systemic barriers to education and opportunity for most of history. They hadn’t written as much.
Which, OK. But. This type of maddening pseudo-logic is what keeps the oldest, the dustiest, the most destructive modes of entrenched thinking wheeling along forever and excuses anyone who doesn’t feel like putting effort toward questioning their own methods. It keeps many colleges’ curricula fully stocked with the dead, the white, and the male, and allows the professors who guard those canons to remain comfortably tenured. It validates the opinions of freshmen boys who drunkenly claim that modern literature lives and dies with Thomas Pynchon, that, no offense, but Jhumpa Lahiri just doesn’t really speak to them. It means that even when these boys grow up, they’ve never once been asked to stop and figure out where, exactly, their so-called literary “taste” comes from.
Far be it for me to proscribe why anyone should read. Maybe what you want is to be entertained, or turned on, or to find a really good recipe. Maybe you don’t care who wrote what so long as you can tune out the subway musicians on your nightly ride home. But it is a real waste to spend a lifetime never reading too far outside yourself. It’s shortsighted and limited to think that sticking to a single swath of perspective, one canon of many, won’t stunt your ability to be a thoughtful, open person in the world. It does a disservice to everyone involved, from the authors whose voices are never heard to the readers who never have the chance to hear them to the vast populations on this planet who still have to explain the very basics of their experience to those who haven’t ever stopped to consider them.
We’re not here for that long; we don’t have much time to spend stepping out of our own heads into others’. To claim, consciously or otherwise, that the only heads worth visiting belong to men (/straight/white/English-speaking/dead people) is to reject the very best that reading can offer: communication, connection, maybe even understanding. It’s way past time to grow up and open up.