Literary value shouldn’t be rooted in personal opinion

The last thing I expected to encounter at the 2015 Kentucky Women Writers Conference was a wall full of words and phrases belittling woman writers. Words like “pathetic” and “self-obsessed” written on bright yellow post-it notes.

I had come to this conference for inspiration, for a push into a creative space I hadn’t visited in a while — and got there, eventually, However, I still had to pass by this tall, looming, ominous board each morning upon entering the Carnegie Center for the day’s events.

One note on the wall in particular stood out to me, from David Gilmour, a professor at the University of Toronto.

“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.”

At first I was frustrated; I mean the guy flat out says he has no love for women writers. As a female writer I took it personally but I gave it a couple more long gazes.

And I started to get it.

As a person, I wouldn’t want to teach something that I don’t love because it would be difficult. I’d have to push past my prejudices against the author and try to understand, try to appreciate something I don’t find attractive.

But as a student of English and literature, I have come to understand that attractiveness and merit are two different things, and equating one with the other is lazy.

Attractiveness deals with personal opinion. Do I like the characters? Do I enjoy the setting? Is the conflict compelling enough to keep my attention?

The author’s choices concerning style, language, character and conflict, and the effectiveness of those choices in creating a cohesive work of literature distinguishes merit.

I don’t expect Gilmour to fall in love with everything he reads. I haven’t fallen in love with everything I’ve read. I didn’t fall I love with Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — but I understand its literary merit.

Gilmour lacks a perspective that separates attractiveness from merit, and he’s letting his personal taste get in the way of exposing his students to great works of literature.

They are deprived of the works of women writers who surrounded me this weekend. Women like Ann Beattie, Carson Kreitzer, Kathleen Driskell and Angela Ball, all because Gilmour doesn’t “love women writers enough to teach them.”

I can tell you one thing about these women — they aren’t looking for love. These women are looking for respect and appreciation — understanding and compassion.

As I left the conference Saturday afternoon, I found that the wall once covered with belittling notes was then covered in pink notes of affirmation and understanding, each written by a female attendee.

Julia Mikulec is an English and journalism sophomore.

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