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Wikipedia's Boys Club of 'American Novelists'

In the upcoming New York Times Sunday Review, American novelist Amanda Filipacchi writes of a recent discovery that further evinces the issue of sexism as it persists in the literary world. This time, it's happening on Wikipedia.

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In the upcoming New York Times Sunday Review, American novelist Amanda Filipacchi writes of a recent discovery that further evinces the issue of sexism, whether entrenched, intended, or unthinkingly accidental, in the literary world. This time, it's happening on Wikipedia. The site's been called out before in these terms, and it does have its defenders. Now here's another example to add to the pile: "It appears that gradually, over time, editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the 'American Novelists' category to the 'American Women Novelists; subcategory," Filipacchi writes. "The intention appears to be to create a list of 'American Novelists' on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men."

Filipacchi points to a note at the top of the American Novelists Wikipedia page, where it's explained that in order to keep the list from becoming too long, novelists have been put into subcategories. Yet, at the time of her writing, there was no subcategory for "American Men Novelists." One could ask further why gender is a helpful subcategory at all. (Genres, sure. But gender, not so much.)

Filipacchi's investigation found that many female novelists (including herself) had been put in the "ladies" subcategory, and were no longer in the overarching category. "Male novelists on Wikipedia, however — no matter how small or obscure they are — all get to be in the category 'American Novelists.' It seems as though no one noticed," she says. 

Upon a check this morning, in the subcategory of "American Men Novelists" there are two men, which may be a recent change—I believe this subcategory is new. Comparatively, there are 305 women in the "American Women Novelists" list. (Both subcategories are marked as considered for merging into, simply, "American Novelists").

These changes are probably largely due to Filipacchi saying something in The New York Times, and others saying something, too. "Word is spreading at a phenomenal rate, on Facebook and elsewhere," she writes, and "Already, changes are being made to the category 'American Novelists.' A couple of female authors have started appearing on the first page, when yesterday there were only men."

The only reason to separate male and female novelists is because of the idea that this gender information is going to say something about that author. But there should be far more revealing, helpful, or interesting things to say about a writer than whether that writer is a man or a woman. And the problem here is that by default, men are the novelists; women are the "women novelists." As Filipacchi writes, that leads to further thinking of the same sort, even if it's unwitting: "People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of 'American Novelists' for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women. They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It's probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world."

There is no shortage of evidence that sexism persists in the literary and writing worlds. The good people at VIDA have done much insightful work identifying where problems lie. Authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, among others, have been vocal about pointing out inconsistencies as well. Sometimes the publishers get involved, too. Recently, after Vintage Books announced an "American Men of Letters Sweepstakes," (John Cheever, James Salter, Philip Roth) the Penguin imprint Riverhead countered with a "Global Women Sweepstakes of Letters" contest (Meg Wolitzer, Emma Straub, Danielle Evans).* There's no silver bullet fix for the issue. But it does seem that acknowledging it is key to make it change. 

What's additionally strange about the patriarchal thought process behind the listing Filipacchi calls out is that women make up far higher numbers of the fiction-reading, book-buying public than do men. According to recent surveys in Canada, Britain, and, yes, America, "Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market." Of course, American Women Readers can and should read whatever they like, as can and should American Men Readers, and one would hope that they do, not choosing a book simply because it's by a man or a woman, or features a particularly gendered clutch of characters. A novelist is a novelist, male or female, just as a good book is a good book. Until the default descriptor can pertain to Men or Women equally, though, it's not equal—it's just wrong. 

*Full disclosure: Riverhead is the publisher of my upcoming book. 

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