Tuesday, 7 October 2014

My Bias

David Gilmour
Last year, David Gilmour, Canadian author and a lecturer at the University of Toronto, stirred up  controversy when he proclaimed his preference for heterosexual, white, male authors.  Gilmour said, "I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately none of those happen to be Chinese or women." He said, "what I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

Virginia Woolf
He did make an exception for Virginia Woolf, and he considered her to be too sophisticated for a third-year class. And in the same interview he did start out talking about his love of Proust, a homosexual writer. In a later interview, he explained that he was not saying that men are better writers than women. "Writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro – these are top-flight international writers. It’s just that I don’t connect with the material as profoundly as I do with, say, Phillip Roth’s The Dying Animal." Also, as a visiting lecturer, and not an actual member of the U of T English department, he perhaps has a little more latitude to focus his classes on only those authors which he personally enjoys.

I understand the backlash against Gilmour's remarks. Teachers of literature should be exposing students to a broad and diverse range authors. It is important for minority voices to be heard, for the experiences of non-privileged groups to be read and explored, for them to be a part of our discourse. Literature is, in part, about exploring other lives and perspectives. Reading only the works produced by one group of people is close-minded and limiting.

But I also understand where Gilmour is coming from.  He is not being a bigot. He is simply identifying those authors with which he has a deep connection.  In my recent post about my influences there is a definite lack of diversity. The authors I mention are all pretty much white, heterosexual males. I am biased. I am more interested in reading authors who I identify with, whose voices resonate with me.  With music and movies I have the same bias. I generally prefer male singers and male actors.

Monty Python
It is most pronounced with comedy.  There are some very funny women out there, but no female comic has ever made me laugh uncontrollably, has ever transported me to that sublime level of mirth. This is something I have no control over. I identify with a male sensibility. I cannot help what I am drawn to, what pulls me in, what intrigues me, what amuses me. And I am not ashamed of that.

However, I accept that I should expand my horizons, step out of my comfort zone a little more. As a reader, and as a writer, perhaps I should be more open to other voices and actively seek them out. When looking for a book to read, I do not consider the gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation of the author (certainly the latter is probably unknown in most cases.) I do not feel that I am prejudiced against women or minority writers. But in all honesty, I am probably more likely to pick up a book if the author's name is male. So, as someone who believes in equality and who considers himself to be progressive and intellectual, is it incumbent on me to incorporate a kind of affirmative action into how I choose what to read?

I don't want to fall into the trap of tokenism and First-World guilt, where I read certain books just to prove that I am an open-minded, progressive intellectual. I started reading Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes, and it just didn't draw me in at all. I'm sure it is a wonderful book but I put it down. My wife picked it up and she couldn't put it down. She loved it, and this sort of confirmed my suspicion that it just wasn't for me - our tastes are extremely divergent. One of her favourite books is The Birth House by Ami McKay, a story about midwives in Nova Scotia during WWI. It's a well-reviewed book; I haven't read it and neither do I want to. It just doesn't interest me. Of course, both of these books are historical fiction. I should be talking about women and minority writers in sci-fi/fantasy, the genre I am most interested in.

I can say that one of my favourite fantasy books of all time was written by a woman and features a strong female protagonist: The Deed of Paksenarrion,by Elizabeth Moon. I've read and enjoyed Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. I've picked up and put down books by Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robin Hobb and others. I'm not sure what is was that I didn't like about these authors. Maybe, as is often the case with me, it was just timing. I've certainly had the same experience with just as many, if not more, books written by men.

As for minority writers, I would certainly consider Salman Rushdie, another one of my favourites, to be non-white. (I don't even consider myself to be white, as a person of Coloured South African descent. But having grown up as a Canadian in a very white suburb, I do have a white sensibility. Nevertheless, I do feel that I can identify with non-whites.) The book I am currently reading is called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Asian American writer Charles Yu. So, maybe I'm not doing so badly. Of course, I don't want to sound like the classic bigot who says, "Well, some of my best friends are [insert name of minority group.]"

Anyway, I have identified my bias and though I'm not ashamed of it, I will try to mitigate it. I do not want it to keep me from great stories that were perhaps not written by white, heterosexual males. I am open to suggestions.