Random Musings: American Women Novelists

A few weeks ago, this article about Wikipedia’s classification of American novelists appeared on the New York Times website. The writer, Amanda Filipacchi, is herself an American novelist. She was rightly shocked to find that Wikipedia was in process of moving all female authors to a separate list titled Amercian Women Novelists, while leaving the all-male list still titled American Novelists. I recently took a peek at Canadian Novelists to see if that page was affected as well. Sure enough, Margaret Atwood—one of Canada’s most venerated literary icons—does not appear on that list. She’s been moved to the land of Canadian Women Novelists. Crazy, right?

Shortly after the NYT article stirred the pot, James Gleik posted this piece on the New York Review of Books Blog, which digs into the how and why beneath the hooplah. It’s actually a pretty interesting read if you’re at all curious about the inner workings of Wikipedia, but the crux of the issue rests on the intent of classification. It seems that some editors at Wikipedia are creating categories—of gender, race, culture, orientation, etc.—with the aspirational intent of highlighting areas of “cultural and sociological interest,” while other editors are just compulsively populating these categories because they are obsessed with classification and organization. Thankfully, Wikipedia is taking this fairly seriously, and if you visit the site for American Women Novelists you will see that the page has been red-flagged for discussion (or hopefully you’ll be reading this far enough down the road that it won’t be flagged anymore!).

What remains after the storm, though, is the reality that female authors are frequently treated as “other”. Judging by Wikipedia’s initial gaffe and their subsequent reactions, that perception is still pervasive. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and there shouldn’t be a need for discussion; it should be blindingly obvious.

As Filipacchi said in her NYT article, “It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.” I think that’s an accurate statement, and one that probably deserves a more active response from the reading public.