Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Of Light and Shadow: Reading to Write with David Gilmour

Although this relatively early Monday event was more sparsely attended than some of the evening events of the Writers Festival, I’m certain that those of us who were present can agree: Masterclass with David Gilmour was an excellent selection for our lunchtime extracurricular activity.


The event appropriately began by addressing Gilmour’s recent controversy, in which a large portion of the internet exploded with claims of homophobia and sexism after the publication of an interview with Gilmour in Hazlitt . Although Gilmour’s words in the aforementioned interview were perhaps not ordered in the best way, it is fairly clear that the claims are not true. To be specific, Gilmour’s implication was not that women writers aren’t valuable; rather, that the literature he identifies most closely with (and thus that which he enjoys the most) is literature written by middle-aged men. Gilmour also makes clear that he would be a second-rate teacher of women writers, and that the work of recent Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Alice Munro will undoubtedly be around for the next century.


After clearing the air of the allegations, host and Writers Fest Artistic Director Sean Wilson opened the discussion about how reading impacts writing, and specifically, which books have been most influential for David Gilmour. Gilmour began by specifying that, even on his best day, he couldn’t write a page as good as Tolstoy’s worst. He spoke quite lovingly of The Great Gatsby, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose style—first person, past tense narrative—as that which Gilmour has been trying to imitate for the past twenty years.


He claims that The Great Gatsby falls into a similar category as that of Bob Marley; both seem as though they were written or recorded yesterday. The “minting” of The Great Gatsby’s prose, Gilmour said, feels like it was published in The New Yorker last week.


Despite his love of Gatsby, however, Gilmour did make it abundantly clear that there are plenty of so-called classics that he doesn’t like. For example, Gilmour considers Ulysses by James Joyce to be a “punishingly dull book”, and that it would be best read during a very long prison sentence. In a brief conversation with Gilmour after the event, I discovered that we share a dislike of George Orwell’s 1984, which was a vast relief for me. Gilmour also confessed to me that he may or may not have taught 1984 without reading the entire novel.


Although I’m certain that Gilmour reads abundantly more than the average person, he admitted that he does not finish ninety percent of the books he starts. Gilmour’s philosophy is that if an author can’t ‘get it right’ on the first page, they likely can’t get it right at all. Further to that end, Gilmour believes that the true test of greatness for novels is whether you can read them a second time. There are, as Gilmour pointed out, “shadows and light on the pages” of great novels that move to reveal new things on a second read.


It is clear that David Gilmour’s approach to reading has greatly impacted the works he has produced, and his opinions about various novels are fascinating in and of themselves. Masterclass was a delight to attend.