How Not to Apologize for Saying Something Sexist

By
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

David Gilmour, the 63-year-old author of A Perfect Night to Go to China, teaches modern short fiction to third- and first-year students at the University of Toronto. David Gilmour is also a human. Thus we should not be surprised that David Gilmour said something regrettable.

Unfortunately for Gilmour, who happens to be up for the Giller Prize right now, the nature of his regrettable remark was to inadvertently reveal his sexism. And because Gilmour appears to in fact be sexist, his attempts to explain away the remarks only served to dig his own sexist-shaped grave.

Gilmour first put his foot in his mouth during a softball interview with Canadian literary magazine Hazlitt. It was published in the form of an as-told-to tour of his bookshelf, which, reporter Emily Keeler noticed, was light on women.“I’m not interested in teaching books by women," he told her.

When I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

In case you were unclear how, exactly, Gilmour feels about women authors, Gilmour later added that he teaches only men, “only the best.”

A follow-up interview with the National Post didn’t make things better. If we squint, we can sort of make out his defense of himself. Gilmour “loves” writers most like him — white, male, middle-aged — because he can relate to them, and he thinks the passion he brings to their familiar subject matter makes him a better teacher.

This is more or less a 13-year-old’s relationship to literature, and nothing to brag about, as a reader and writer, but, hey, points for honesty. As a teacher building a syllabus of the “best” modern short fiction, though, it’s a shortcoming that necessitates a sincere apology. Gilmour’s lack of imagination and empathy means perpetuating the cultural dominance of white, male perspectives, absolving himself and his students of any responsibility to those of women and people of color. (And we’re talking about, say, Edith Wharton and James Baldwin here — it wouldn’t exactly be torture.) Gilmour loves “the best books”; books by women can be taught by someone “down the hall.”

We’ve combed Gilmour’s remarks to bring you the dos and don’ts for apologizing for sexist remarks. Just kidding, they’re all don’ts.

DON’T faux-apologize, on the grounds that you’re not sexist in private. Public speech matters.

“I said I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body, and everyone who knows me knows it.”

DON’T suggest you deserve a sexism hall pass because you like one gay guy.

“I think anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything.”

DON’T blame your sexist quote on being distracted by a much more stimulating conversation than the one you were having with the journalist.

“Quite frankly, I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.”

DON’T say that one reason you’re apologizing is you still need women to buy your book.

“I talked to Patrick Crean, [my editor at HarperCollins]. He was concerned that this was going to affect the general climate around the book, that some women might not like the book if they think that that’s my policy. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m apologizing. Normally I actually wouldn’t.”

DON’T blame your sexist quote on the attention-seeking journalist taking you out of context.

“I really don’t know what this is about. And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something, because when I said ‘real heterosexual guys’ I’m talking about Scott Fitzgerald [and] Scott Fitzgerald was not what you’d call a real guy’s guy, a real heterosexual guy. Part of Scott Fitzgerald’s charm is in his feminine sensibility. But then this noise happened.”

If you do, she will publish the full transcript of your interview. Not only will the sexist quote be there, intact, exactly as she presented (worse, in fact), you will be revealed to be condescending and a terrible listener.

Gilmour: What kind of a magazine is this?
Keeler: Hazlitt is an online magazine, it’s run by Random House Canada —
Gilmour: Great, good for you.
Keeler: It’s not bad.
Gilmour: No, it’s a way into the publishing industry.
Keeler: Oh, I don’t want to work in publishing. Well, I do work in publishing. I have a magazine called Little Brother, it’s a literary magazine.
Gilmour: You’re working in two literary endeavours, that’s a curious activity for somebody who doesn’t want to be in publishing.
Keeler: Well, I don’t want to be like — I don’t want to work at Random House. That’s not the end goal, so. [Giggling]
Gilmour: What is the end goal?
Keeler: I’d like for the magazine to take off. That would be sweet. That’s probably wishful thinking. I don’t know. I’m also a freelancer. The book world is kind of my beat. I also write for the LA Times, and The Globe and Mail and stuff.
Gilmour: As a photographer or writer?
Keeler: As a writer.