By Erin Wunker
There is a certain exhaustion that comes with teaching within a field. As a scholar trained in the field of Canadian literature I periodically find myself tired of the eternal return to the question “what makes it Canadian?” But that exhaustion is soon replaced with a redoubled sense of urgency and resolve. If students are coming into university classrooms asking these same questions year after year then this becomes an opportunity to unpack assumptions, address stereotypes, and support new critically engaged writers. That same exhaustion that comes from consistently returning to the same question ceases to be as edifying and refreshing when it happens outside the classroom and instead occurs amongst peers.
This fall has proved once again that the questions “why does gender matter?” and “why does feminist epistemology matter?” have to be answered yet again. Indeed, it would seem that those questions, which are so often rooted in the ways that narrative and discourse have been harnessed to produce particular and partial representations of the nation, have to be addressed yet again within the field of Canadian literary production.
Events in the last few months would suggest that a persistent issue with literary critical culture in Canada is at best a serious myopia and at worst misogyny. I am of course referring to David Gilmour’s statement that he “doesn’t love women writers enough to teach them,” and that he “only teaches serious heterosexual guys.” I am also referring to Tim Bowling’s recent interview with poet and critic Carmine Starnino in CV2 in which Starnino refers to the work undertaken by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) as not the “real work” that literary culture needs, but rather merely an “annual ‘count’” that produces “panicky responses.” Each of these statements betrays fundamentally gendered and dismissive language, yes. And gender discrimination—not to mention discrimination at the level of race and class—are systematic and entrenched inequities in Canada, not just Canadian literary production. Both Starnino’s and Gilmour’s claims reveal how very much work there is yet to do. My fundamental concern here is neither Starnino nor Gilmour per se, but they provide useful and recent examples of what does concern me. In what follows I focus first on Gilmour’s statements, then Starnino’s in order to unpack and address the larger structural inequities and misogyny their statements represent.
I’ll start with Gilmour, because his statements went viral to a degree that I suspect Starnino’s will not. The fact that Gilmour’s statements went viral matters because the comments sparked a revitalized debate about misogyny in Canadian literary culture. It also matters that Starnino’s statements were made after the Gilmour debacle. Gilmour’s remarks were offensive on a number of levels. First, I find it deeply concerning that a professor—with all the rights and privileges that come with that position—sees no misogyny, racism, or homophobia in his statements. Gilmour’s remarks about not teaching literature by women, people of colour, or queer people (which he suggests slantwise when he says he prefers to teach “serious heterosexual guys”) reveal his own fundamental discrimination. It would be one thing if he only revealed his own biases and prejudices, but when you are granted the privilege and opportunity to teach students at a public institution you have a responsibility to act in an ethical, critically engaged manner. Imagine what it must feel like to be a woman, person of colour, or queer person in one of Gilmour’s classes. What is specifically upsetting and perniciously damaging about Gilmour’s blithe remarks is that they reveal the ongoing presence of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in our culture right now.
I am a board member for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). It is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote and help enact equity in Canadian literary culture. CWILA has proved two years in a row now that gender discrimination exists in at least one key arena of Canadian literary culture. What we have learned through the process of enacting The Count (a census of thousands of literary reviews in Canada, that census which Starnino suggests is “not the real work”) is that it is extremely difficult to quantify “sexism” “racism” and “homophobia” in how people choose to review literature and whose texts they choose to review. Gilmour’s comments deriding the work of women writers, writers of colour, queer writers, and indeed any writer who is Canadian doesn’t undermine CWILA’s work, it validates it! One of the reasons we at CWILA feel that Gilmour’s remarks have gone viral is that they make explicitly concrete the sexism, racism, and homophobia that exists in otherwise nuanced and abstract ways.
Indeed, I for one am glad that Gilmour made his remarks in such a public forum, because while they are hardly isolated in their myopia they served to remind us what kind of vigilant action is required. Action is being taken in response to Gilmour’s remarks. I see action in response to Gilmour’s statements happening in two interconnected ways: First, his comments have incited a positive internet backlash that is generating crucial conversations around critical pedagogy, sexism, racism, and homophobia in the classroom. People are talking about what kind of damages are wrought when critical practice is not brought to bear on the creation of a syllabus.
The second way action is being taken is a bit more complicated and might tell us more about the culture of inequity in which we live: Gilmour has received primetime space on television and in all kinds of news media—not to mention blogs and Twitter. Indeed, that platforms like Sun Media are now interested in hearing from CWILA is a by-product of the complicated ways in which privilege works. Sun Media contacted us because of what a privileged, white, male professor at the University of Toronto said to a reporter he denigrates as being “a young woman looking to make a name for herself” (see http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/09/25/david-gilmour-there-isnt-a-racist-or-a-sexist-bone-in-my-body/).[i] So the media’s reaction to Gilmour—especially those media sites that have gone to Gilmour to give him more space to speak—are functionally validating his position that the only voices worth listening to are “serious heterosexual guys.” Ultimately, I am not interested in whether or not Gilmour shifts his rhetoric. I am interested in what the larger Canadian culture decides to learn from another example of misogyny.
Gilmour’s statements around only teaching what he loves are offered as an explanation for the narrowness of his syllabus. His comments that suggest professors should not be made to teach outside their areas of expertise to satisfy “political correctness” make me deeply uncomfortable. Of course, I am a woman who teaches Canadian literature, writing by queer writers, and writing by people of colour. But what genuinely concerns me about Gilmour’s statement here is that it suggests that professors should only teach what they know, and what they recognize. We are literature professors who operate in the Humanities, he and I. And the Humanities are an unfinished project. This is what I mean: in their classical iteration the Humanities were conceived as enriching human existence. Similarly, in its most basic iteration the Enlightenment cast Humanity in the realm of the possible: if only humans worked hard enough to broaden their minds, strengthen their bodies, and exercise their imaginations, then the possible was infinite. The concomitant problem with this aspiration was definitional but real: who or what is human? Who makes the decisions regarding access to knowledge production? Who decides what kinds of knowledges are knowledges as such? Find the answer to those questions and you’ve come to the answer of why Gilmour’s statements are so problematic.
The definition of who and what counts has never been as open within the Humanities as it could be, and thus those of us who fall on the outside of the definition in practice, if not in theory, come from long and varied histories of working outside the dominate sphere of legibility. To my mind then, Gilmour’s comments underscore a particular type of myopia: an inability to see beyond one’s own privilege.
How does Gilmour’s rather blatant misogyny help us think through the more pernicious gendered iterations of Canadian literary culture? How can the statements of an individual serve as a means of addressing pernicious and systematic discrimination in the field of Canadian literature?
Specifically, how might the “Gilmour affair” help us read Carmine Starnino’s recent comments on Canadian poetics as indicative of larger structural inequities and not simply as a smug diagnosis of gendered representation in the Canadian literary scene? What can we learn from Carmine Starnino’s positioning of himself as a writer, reviewer, and public intellectual? In his interview with Tim Bowling in CV2 Starnino recounts his difficulty in finding female reviewers. “I cajoled, wooed, flattered,” he writes. While some “didn’t see themselves as qualified” others “the majority… believed they were too opinionated to survive the experience.” Furthermore, he closes by suggesting that websites such as Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound have been successful because “female contributors feel like they’re part of a pack, like they have cover.” Starnino’s point is two-pronged. On the surface he posits that women need strength in numbers and that sites like Lemon Hound facilitate that numerousness. But look closely: when does one need cover? When you’re already under fire. There is an implicit acknowledgement that women who take up public space in the Canadian literary scene are always-already at war. Further, by utilizing “pack,” especially in reference to a site with “hound” in its name, Starnino elides women with animals rather than with a literary school or coterie. Women are under siege and they’re just a pack of bitches.
A few things are happening here, and they all hinge around damaging myopias in Canadian literary culture. Let’s table for a moment his own privilege as a white male critic in Canada and focus instead on the poet-critic’s use of language. Indeed, let’s start with that term poet-critic. Typically, the term refers to a poet who is also a critic rather than, say, the relationship between a poet and a critic. In other words, a poet-critic is someone whose authority as a commentator is rooted in a very particular subjectivity. The poet-critic works from a position of both privilege and risk as someone who both creates and critiques. The privilege here is much different than Gilmour’s; here, privilege comes from the implicit suggestion that writing poetry makes one an authoritative critic. I am not particularly interested in considering the potential issues of this assumption. Rather, I want simply to point these additional issues out. What interests me is the risk of this subject position: the poet-critic risks myopia when he or she rejects a broad readerly audience and speaks only to a narrow coterie. I am not a poet-critic. I am a critic and teacher who works in a university setting and who writes literary criticism that is typically about gender, poetry, and poetics in Canada. When I write literary criticism it is true that I often write for a specific audience. That audience is generally a literary one, but it is also, always, with a pedagogical purpose in mind. My work is grounded in the fundamental belief in the necessity of critical pedagogy for the creation of a sustainable future audience. Thus, when I write, my critique, my explication, my contextualization is aimed at building discourse, or at least providing the information for future discourse. As an educator my responsibility is to a current and future public. I work with students, yes, and I write towards an academic and non-academic public. I am not a part of a group, a school, a circle, or a movement of writers. Or at least not in the same way a poet-critic may be. What Starnino’s rhetoric first underscores is not only a divide between critical practices in Canada, it also points to a question of naming: when is a group of like-minded or similarly-politicked, or aesthetically-conversant people a “school,” “circle,” or a “movement,” and when is it just “a pack”? In short, there are structural differences in Canadian literary culture—especially at the level of where criticism happens—that might begin to explain limiting blind spots that curtail the development of a flourishing critical literary discourse. Indeed, we cannot assume that there are not deeply ideological underpinnings inherent in the very forums in which we want to practice our criticism.
However, these structural differences do not go far enough here to explain the degree of gendered violence inherent in some of the language used by both Starnino and Gilmour. How should we read Starnino’s dismissal of a national organization (which is only in its second full year) as the “they” to his “we” in the following exchange?
TB: What do you feel about CWILA [Canadian Women in the Literary Arts?]
CS: They’ve done a lot of good – and the numbers (both for books reviewed by women, and reviews of books by women) appear to be on the rise this year. They should feel proud to have played a role in that. But, for me, the real work is much larger than an annual “count” and the panicky responses around it. We need to embolden young women.
Here, Starnino implies another gendered division between serious critics, not-yet-serious critics who are still too “young” to be serious critics, and people involved with CWILA. It takes neither a literary critic nor a language-attentive poet to identify “us” versus “them.” Echoing his earlier use of gendered language in his description of “cajol[ing], woo[ing], and flatter[ing]” would-be female reviewers (are they the “young women” he suggests need emboldening? Is that how he imagines emboldening? Is this the same “young woman” Gilmore suggests was just “looking to make a name for herself”), Starnino makes clear his derision for CWILA’s work and the feminized responses it apparently produces. Moreover, the implication of Gilmour’s and Starnino’s emphases on youth suggests that young women are the only women who are worthy of “emboldening.” Feminism 101 teaches us that misogyny, like homophobia, racism, and other forms of inequity, is structural in its form and function. It affects everyone—young, old, in-between—albeit in differing ways. What is more, the statement that CWILA “should feel” rather than be “proud” underscores the paternalism of these remarks. Given that poetry is at its most basic an attentiveness to language and given that Starnino is an advocate for precise language, it seems impossible that he is unaware of the tenor of his diction. While these statements are troubling on their own, when taken alongside some of his other writing directed at CWILA – and especially the writer Jan Zwicky – another troubling trend emerges, albeit banal in its eternal return.
In a 2012 post entitled “Cue the Violins, Folks” Starnino writes that “Michael Lista speaks truth to stupidity.” He’s referring here to a very public exchange that emerged between Zwicky and Lista shortly after CWILA republished Zwicky’s essay “The Ethics of the Negative Review.” Briefly, Zwicky argues that the ethical role of the critic is to engage with the work itself rather than engage in evaluative criticism. Lista’s lengthy response can be found online, as can Zwicky’s rebuttal and a host of revealing commentary. What troubles me is not the charged discussion that emerged but rather the ways in which that discussion was so deeply and perniciously gendered. Under an excerpt of Lista’s response Starnino writes, “I’m not sure what good Lista’s riposte will do. Zach Wells tried to knock some sense into Zwicky’s essay when it first appeared. And I did my damnedest in my introduction to A Lover’s Quarrel.” Knock some sense? Really? And what, then, do we make of Zach Wells’s attempt to “knock some sense” into Zwicky’s article if we then turn to his 2009 post “CITRIC BITCH’S THINKING IS SHIT”? In this post Wells clearly references writer, critic, and teacher Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound, a site that was Queyras’s own literary blog in 2009, but has now evolved into a multi-authored literary quarterly, aka the pack. Here’s an excerpt:
Citric bitch thinks: “Litcrit is sick—I’ll fix it!’
Sic ‘im, citric bitch, sic’im!
Citric bitch is yipping.
Citric bitch is griping.
Drink piss, dimwit citric bitch,
Kiss this critic’s nightstick!
Unlike, for example, F.R. Scott’s “All Spikes But the Last” which clearly calls out E.J. Pratt in an attempt to correct his racial myopia in “Towards the Last Spike,” this is hardly poetic innovation in the service of critiquing myopic literary production (especially given the odd inhabitation—mocking? Or flattering?—of the identical poetic constraints used by Christian Bok in Eunoia). Indeed, I am hardly the first to address this poem. For example, Jon Paul Fiorentino’s “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community,” or Brad Cran’s open letter reference Wells’ poem to address the larger structural issues I am pointing at. Instead, Wells’ piece is an excellent reminder of the ways in which gender violence operates in language. Let’s not forget: language makes things happen. Language is what we use to identify personhood. Allusion, metaphor, synecdoche, all of these literary devices create and sustain inequitable and violent relationships. “Knocking sense” into an essay hardly masks the violence of the implied synecdoche. “Kiss this critic’s nightstick” doesn’t even bother with figurative language or the absent referent, it is a threat couched in poor verse. When this “poem” is read in conjunction with Starnino’s commentary and diction, Gilmour’s dismissals, and, yes, CWILA’s growing statistical research it seems clear that there is much work to be done. Again, I am far less interested in whether or not individual poet-critics recognize or shift their violently gendered discourse. This is not about the individual poet-critic. This conversation is about recognizing, articulating, and unpacking malignant myopias in Canadian literary and cultural production. Yet again.
Canadian literary criticism will thrive with more engaged and rigorous discourse, of course. If we want a sustainable and future-oriented Canadian literary culture that will require an ever-evolving attentiveness to the work of production and the work of criticism. But if the events of this fall have done anything they have served as a clear reminder that the existence and expansion of organizations like CWILA are vital to the ethics of that work.
Bowling, Tim. “An Interview with Carmine Starnino.” Contemporary Verse 2: The
Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing. http://www.contemporaryverse2.ca/en/interviews/excerpt/an-interview-with-carmine-starnino
Cran, Brad. “Lazy Jerkism: An Open Letter to Carmine Starnino.” Brad Cran. http://bradcran.com/vancouver_verse/an-open-letter-to-carmine-starnino/
Fiorentino, Jon Paul. “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/jon-paul-fiorentino/sexism-literary-community_b_3188385.html
Starnino, Carmine. “Cue the Violins, Folks.” The vehicule press blog.
Wells, Zachariah. “CITRIC BITCH’S THINKING IS SHIT.” Career Limiting Moves. Zachariahwells.blogspot.ca/2009/02/citric-bitchs-thinking-is-shit.html
[i] It is worth noting that the University of Toronto Department of English Acting Chair Paul Stevens publically circulated the following message:
A message from the Acting Chair of the English Department, Professor Paul Stevens.
Like all those of you who have seen David Gilmour’s comments in the Hazlitt magazine on teaching literature at U of T, I was appalled and deeply upset. They constitute a travesty of all we stand for. I will be pursuing the matter further today. There seem to me two points that immediately need to be emphasized. First, David Gilmour is not a member of the Department of English at the University of Toronto, and second, his ill-informed and offensive views could not be less representative of the passionately held values and actual practices of the Department. Please feel free to circulate this message as you think appropriate.
Many of you have already been trying to set the record straight — many thanks to Nick Mount, Heather Murray, Alex Gillespie, Michael Cobb, Holger Syme, and Katie Larson.
Paul Stevens Professor and Acting Chair Department of English University of Toronto
Erin Wunker is an Assistant Professor (limited term) in the Department of English at Dalhousie University where she is also the programme director for Canadian Studies. Her areas of research and teaching include Canadian literary and cultural production and critical theory. She is a co-founder and editor of the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe. She is a CWILA board member and critic-in-residence manager.
Published December 16, 2013