Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sexism in Writing Programs: David Gilmour is No Exception

I thought I might share some thoughts on MFA programs. As writers of any genre, I think it is important to know and discuss how new writers are taught.

By now most of you have probably seen the disgusting words of writing professor David Gilmour, “I’m not interested in teaching books by women. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth."

His word are sexist, racist and unbelievable to anyone living in the 20th century, but they are not an exception when it comes to the world of writing programs.

 Please find the full story here

I can only speak from my experience. I entered an MFA program 12 years ago, ready to become the next Margaret Atwood (who by the way is a prolific, bestselling, award winning Canadian author like Mr. Gilmour), but what I found when I arrived was not a place that read her books, or taught her.
The break out of male to female professors in my program was as follows: Fiction: 2 male full-time, 1 female adjunct; Non-Fiction: 1 female full-time; Poetry: 1 male full time, 1 female full time and 1 male adjunct.

Pretty even as things in writing go, but notice 2 male full-time for fiction. Those men were my main professors. They were the ones who were going to teach me how to write as a woman and certainly they were equipped to teach writing, but not that. As a result, my literature classes were absolutely male heavy. There were females sprinkled in: Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Munro but mostly we read men: Phillip Roth, Vladamir Nabokov, Chekhov, Michael Chabon, Chaucer, Homer, etc. ) (You'll notice they were also all white, but this blog post isn't really about that part.)
I never really thought about it at the time. I was so excited to be in a writing program (you have to be accepted based on talent) that I never questioned if I was getting an equal education. Additionally, the sexism in my program was never as overt and possibly my professors didn't even realize it. They were men who both went to Iowa, which if you know about the history of writing programs was one of the first and a boy's club from way back.

I know that has changed now and a lot of amazing women authors are coming out of Iowa, but I would guess that they still read far more men in their literature classes. It's what the old guard want.
So what does what David Gilmour said have to do with me, aside from having in a small way experienced it?

Six months ago, I started writing a book titled Sneaking Candy about a twenty-something woman in a graduate writing program who writes erotic romance under a pseudonym because she is afraid she will not be taken seriously by her peers. I thought at first it would be a book about a woman trying to find her authorial voice, her sexual voice and finding love in the unlikeliest place, but as I wrote it turned into something much different.

Her writing professor and mentor in the book is an awful lot like David Gilmour, and was created before I even knew about the ass that was David Gilmour.
See this excerpt as an example:
Professor Martin's glanced at the syllabus I had created for my class. “This is a little female heavy, Candice,” he said, tipping his head up. His mouth was a straight line, like the punctuation on his criticism.
I bit my lip. Professor Martin could be as irritating as a thong made out of sandpaper.
As irritating as realizing I was wearing a thong made of sandpaper and that I had forgotten to do laundry and had no other thongs to wear.
“Compared to what?” I asked, sitting up straighter in the impossible-to-be-comfortable-in slick wood chairs the university chose to adorn the other side of his desk.
The class was Contemporary Fiction 201 and fine maybe I did choose to teach more female writers, but I was a female writer and I was also pissed off at how underrepresented we were everywhere else.
“It should just be balanced,” he said. “Don’t you agree?” His wavy, hay-blonde hair was slicked back. On the beach it had been loose, flying as he ran to spike the volleyball . I remember thinking that day the exact color of his hair was something that sonnets could be written about. Of course, I’d had more than my share of Mike’s Hard Lemonade so I was feeling poetic—a scary proposition for any fiction writer.
“If there were more men, would you tell me to add more women?” I asked. I wished when he’d given me the syllabus for the class that I was a teaching assistant for I could have told him to make it more balanced.
It was dripping with penises, a Christmas tree adorned with saggy-members instead of garland: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Faulkner just to name a few. It was a semantic sausage-fest.

Without even meaning to, I could feel my book turning into the battle cry I believe many women writers and would-be writers feel. I am not less important or valid than you for being a woman, or writing stories that women and young women want to read.

The only reason I could be writing this was because even if it wasn't as overt as what Mr. Gilmour said, it was something I experienced. Something it seems women in writing programs still are.
I hope when Sneaking Candy comes out in December professors like Mr. Gimour might see that there is a problem in what and who is taught in writing programs, that a change needs to come, but probably not because I am a woman.


  1. Love this post! I wouldn't be surprised if an avalanche of comments follows.

  2. Great post. Sexism is still rampant in many parts of society, it's just better hidden in most cases. Gilmour's statement wouldn't be so awful if there was a female professor at the same school who said the same thing about men - and had an all-female reading list. If there was, no doubt she'd have a faculty advisor who would tell her to be more balanced...just like the MC in your excerpt. Apparently, balancing is only applicable in one direction.