Friday, September 27, 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women . . . Writers

Oh, the irony that at the same time we’re celebrating Banned Book Week a well-known male writer declares that he will never teach women writers in his classroom. “I teach only the best,” David Gilmour said in an interview about what he reads and what he teaches. Apparently women’s lives and ideas are banned from his classroom because for him “the best” is defined as “[s]erious heterosexual guys.” He’s all about manly men.

I know, I know. “Banned” is probably too strong a word to describe this situation because he’s not fighting to get all women writers stricken from the department curriculum. He’s happy to allow someone else to handle the lesser, estrogen-influenced literature. However, his students are aware enough to realize at some point that they’re not reading any contemporary female authors in his class. Their education is missing something. To that he explained, “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.”

When social media and book bloggers went crazy over this admission he tried to hide behind the standard jerk’s response of “my words taken out of context.” In its defense, the website that posted the original interview immediately came back with the complete transcript of their discussion.

So why should you care that one writer-teacher has such a Neanderthal approach to his classes? Over on Book Riot, one columnist wrote a thoughtful response about the danger of this limited vision coming from a teacher. The classroom is where we explore a wider world-view, not study only what we like. How can we allow a classroom instructor to declare from the beginning that the ideas of women as a whole are not worthy? That talents of an entire gender are particularly lacking?

While I know that Gilmour doesn’t care what I think about anything, my first thought is that if we can’t find female writers whose works will live for centuries to come, is that because they’re inherently lesser writers or is it because there are great writers not being given the chance? Virginia Woolf (whom Gilmour places on the lower rings of not-a-hetrosexual-guy purgatory) ruminated on this exact question in her essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Who knows what “Judith” Shakespeare could have accomplished if cultural prejudices hadn’t held her back?

In a more modern method, the VIDA organization tracks the role of women in the literary world by maintaining statistics on how many females have their books reviewed by heavyweight book review sources and how many females are published in literary journals. The numbers they’ve charted can cause sleepless nights among those of us women who want to be published. Is this because women don’t write as compelling pieces or because there are a bunch of male editors who hold an opinion similar to Gilmour? Or because of the age-old problem of not enough women in the decision-making roles at the office?

This week I was originally planning on telling you about a book I’m reading. Mira Bartók's The Memory Palace, a mesmerizing book about family and love, and forgiveness. After leaving for college she and her sister sever all ties with her mother, who had once been a promising classical pianist but who had sunk deeper and deeper into mental illness. The book tells about reconciling as a family when Bartók receives word that her mother is dying in a homeless shelter. There are many memoirs about dysfunctional families, but Bartók stands out because of the “memory palace” she created to tell her story. After a car accident, she’s left with extreme memory loss and inability to remember things from one day to the next. A Jesuit priest told her how to build a memory palace, where everything she wants to remember has an image. Each image has a particular place in this palace in her mind. Throughout the telling of her story, she returns to her memory palace often, guiding us through her rooms and making connections for us between the abstract images that make her memory. Bartók teaches us how to map our lives, how following the path backward through landmarks can lead us forward to reconciliation with the present.

More than once a man has said that they don’t read women writers or books with female protagonists because they just can’t relate to the story (go ahead and ask your guy friends; I’ll wait). But you rarely hear women say they don’t read male authors.

And so I’m also reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. I know nothing of murder, or fly fishing, or the rough characters of bunkhouses in the West, or of the wild outdoors. But that’s why I read it. I want to understand. And I want to soak in the clean language: “I am haunted by waters.” Ultimately, both Maclean and Bartók talk family -- something which we all experience.

Maybe that male inclination to avoid what they just can’t relate to explains a whole lot in the world.

So in recognition of Banned Book Week, pick up one of many books by women writers who have enough trouble getting the literary respect they deserve from a bunch of people whose minds are the size of lentils. They just don’t need Gilmour disrespecting them, too. Here are a few to get you started:

Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird
Alice Walker The Color Purple
Kate Chopin The Awakening
Lois Lowry The Giver
Isabel Allende The House of the Spirits

Share titles of works by your favorite female writers, fiction or non-fiction,
in the comments box. Or just share what you’re reading now.


elizabethfais said...

I loved The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flag. I could list a lot more, especially the female writers who influence my writing. Great topic for Banned Books Week!

Tami Clayton said...

Very well said, Julie. It's always so sad for me when I hear of supposedly well-educated educators saying and doing asinine things like this.

Julie Farrar said...

As a former teacher, I'm horrified to hear someone who's job it is to open minds is so close-minded.

Becky Green Aaronson said...

Terrific post, Julie, especially for Banned Book Week. I share your horror about the close-mindedness of someone whose job it is to open up the world of students to all of life's possibilities.

I have too many favorites to list, but let's just say To Kill a Mockingbird is at the top.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Julie. The guy is just a hateful bigot, but the evil is not in his attitude. It is in his teaching position. As a teacher, he's supposed to teach diversity and let his students choose for themselves, not direct their choices, his personal taste notwithstanding.
I have to admit that in my personal preferences, women writers definitely dominate. I dislike male writers. The majority of them are too harsh, no emotional nuances. Of course, there are exceptions. I adore Terry Pratchett and I enjoyed Robin Sloan's "Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore" but mostly I read and love female writers, too many to list or even count. But I would never tell anyone that male writers are inferior, just that I prefer books written by women. The most powerful book I read recently was written by a woman: Jojo Moyes - "Me Before You"

Muriel said...

The guy is just a sexist old prat. That said, there are a lot like him. Maybe we should just change our names and pretend we are men -just a thought.

Lynn at Southern Fried French said...

What a fabulous post, so true. I Like this quote: "Maybe that male inclination to avoid what they just can’t relate to explains a whole lot in the world."
Mailer, by the way, is the worst chauvinist--so 'macho' as the French say. But he has other things to say, so we will not ignore him.

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