Category Archives: thrice-yearly responses to Margaret Wente’s columns

Wente on Gilmour (because none of us saw that coming)

ab-Toni-Morrison

For the record, Toni Morrison could totally kick Hemingway’s ass.

Once the scope and scale of the reaction to David Gilmour’s comments became clear, is was also clear that the chances Margaret Wente would not put in her two cents in her weekly column were slim to none. Huge surprise: she’s pro-Gilmour, anti-feminist, and if you weren’t certain what her response would be, her opening sentences put that uncertainty to rest: “How does an obscure Canadian author become an international sensation overnight?” she asks, and answers: “Easy. Just insult some feminists!”

Yes. Some feminists. Because the range of responses was limited to a narrow, shrill band of men-haters who haunt Wente’s imagination and, presumably, the imaginations of her devoted readers. And for the record, it is this latter group that makes me inclined to say something more on this topic: however often I promise myself I’m just going to ignore her—to avoid feeding the troll, as the saying goes these days—I can’t help but remember that there are people out there who take her words as unalloyed truth and imagine that she is a brave and besieged voice of reason in the midst of leftist hate, as opposed to a lazy, sinecured columnist who writes the same argument over and over, and even then sometimes can’t be bothered to use her own words and ideas.

Or perhaps the horde of Wente admirers is just what haunts my imagination.

Nevertheless, no matter how much I know she’s just poking us with a stick to goad a response, I can’t help pointing out where she’s being misleading, mendacious, or simply wrong. Take for example this seemingly mild defense of Gilmour, which is actually just an excuse to reiterate her biggest complaint about current English curricula:

Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.

If by “testosterone-safe zone,” she means courses devoted exclusively to male writers, you don’t actually have to look too hard to find them—you just have to look early, as in chronologically, to find numerous courses on the U of T 2013-2014 undergraduate schedule dedicated entirely to dudes. That their names are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton doesn’t exactly obviate their gender. After that? Well, the women start to creep in. They’re sneaky that way. But what Wente doesn’t say (as I’m sure it never occurred to her) is that the presence of names like Austen, Gaskell, Eliot, and the Brontës on nineteenth-century literature courses isn’t some feminist conspiracy to eclipse the dudes, but an honest and scrupulous attempt to construct curricula that offer a representative range of authors well-regarded and widely-read in their own times (even if George Eliot and the Brontë sisters did have to assume male pseudonyms). Ditto for the twentieth century.

Her suggestion that people wishing to study Hemingway at university are shit out of luck comes as rather a surprise, as I just wrapped up a unit on A Farewell to Arms. Before that? The Great Gatsby, another Gilmour-approved novel. And on Tuesday, we start The Sound and the Fury … and while Gilmour had nothing to say about Faulkner, I have to imagine he wouldn’t complain about that one. But here’s the thing: having devoted the first half of my C20 American Fiction course to a holy trinity of the American fiction canon, I was compelled to offer some balance, and the second half will be Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez. Not out of some politically-correct, milquetoast liberal guilt, but because I owe it to my students to offer some sort of representative balance. Filling out a survey course is always a mug’s game, especially when you have thirteen weeks to cover an entire century. So you do the best you can, and in the end there is always room to teach your passion.But it’s not about what the professor loves, it’s about how best to give your students a wide range of ideas, styles, voices, experiences, personalities, worldviews, and vocabularies. That, ultimately, is why the humanities are so crucial: they offer the opportunity, to paraphrase critic Denis Donaghue, to encounter lives more richly imagined than our own. And, I would add, lives we would not otherwise encounter unless we devote our own to traveling all over the world.

But to return to Wente’s harrumph, re: Hemingway. As I said, I just taught one of his novels. But I suspect she’s using Papa metonymically here, having him stand in for the broad range of proud literary masculinity currently getting the short shrift. Is what she says true, my own class notwithstanding? Are these white hetero men, as Patrick Buchanan suggested in another context, an endangered species? Let’s check out the current undergraduate course offerings for U of T English’s 2013-2014 school year.

Well, OK … I don’t see any listings for “Testosterone 101” or “Guy-Guy Lit.” And yes, many of these courses include women authors. Well, not the first-year course “The English Literary Tradition.” Nary a woman to be seen on that list. Or how about “Literature in Our Time”? Seven authors listed, but only two women, Virginia Woolf (whom we’ll call an honourary guy-guy, as she is Gilmour-approved) and Sylvia Plath. Moving on to second-year classes, “The Novel” gets a little more estrogen-heavy with five women (Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison) elbowing onto the course with seven men. Then we come to three sections of  the course “American Literature,” whose C20 readings do not, in fact, include Hemingway but do feature William Faulkner, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, and such Gilmour-approved guy-guys as Fitzgerald and Philip Roth. Moving on to third-year courses, “Modern Fiction to 1960” gives us yet more Faulkner, as well as Malcolm Lowry, whom I suspect is a guy-guy. (Just so it’s clear, I’m not mentioning every hetero male on these courses, just the ones I imagine Gilmour would approve of. Nor, for that matter, am I mentioning most of the actual courses offered). In “Twentieth Century American Literature,” hey—Hemingway! As well as even more Faulkner (wow, U of T loves it some Faulkner), more Richard Brautigan, more Philip Roth, as well as Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Raymond Carver. “Contemporary American Fiction” features more Roth, more Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Fourth year course offerings, admittedly, seem to feature fewer guy-guys, except for the fact that there is one course devoted exclusively to Ezra Pound, who was perhaps the ultimate stereotype of the guy-guy (once comparing the pen to the penis and ink to semen. Ick).

All of which is by way of pointing out that Margaret Wente, once again, really needs to do a little research before she honks off. Does the U of T undergraduate English curriculum—as well as most in the country—make a point of offering women’s literature? Yes. Does it attempt to balance canonical, male writers with women, with authors or colour, and with other traditionally marginal groups? Yes. Does it do so to the utter exclusion of the aforementioned canonical male writers?

No. No, in thunder. And if people like Margaret Wente would spend the five minutes it would take to actually peruse course offerings rather than screaming in outrage the moment they saw courses with titles like “Gynocentric Approaches to Modern Literature,” (not actually a course) they would know that.

*

One more thing (he said, putting on his Columbo voice).

Did anyone else notice Wente’s little bit of implicit racism in the passage I quoted above? To repeat, (italics mine) she says that courses in “guy-guy” writers are “vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers.” Catch it? Apparently “guy-guy” also means emphatically white and, weirdly, non-Canadian. There are no macho, straight-up hetero black authors? (paging Richard Wright). Caribbean authors? (V.S. Naipaul would be surprised by that one). African, Asian, South Asian, or Canadian authors? (Because on this last one, I can think of at least one Governor-General award-winner who would protest). To “testosterone-safe zone” I suppose we must also append the sign “whites only.”

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