Wikipedia wars: are there really novelists and 'women novelists'?

How many brilliant writers will be sorted away entirely, never making the cut as novelists because they're weighed down with the tag "woman"?

Bad news if you're an American, a novelist and a woman: Wikipedia has decided that you don't count as an American Novelist and have to go in your own sex specific sub-section called Women American Novelists. Well, not Wikipedia itself – Wikipedia is a platform, not a unified entity, and it makes no more sense to talk about it as the possessor of a single corporate mind than it does to imagine that your Facebook feed is the carefully curated output of one editor. Better to say instead that certain Wikipedians decided the best way to organise fiction was with women on the outside.

Since Amanda Filipacchi drew attention to this in the New York Times, there has been a lot of serious discussion on the the American Novelists talk page, as editors work out how to resolve such a highly scrutinised issue. A few have defended it as a neutral decision designed to reduce an untenably huge category, but to most involved, the sexism seems obvious: such a system of ordering makes men the default type of human, and women a subset. One contributor suggests creating the category American Men Novelists as a solution, only to be hit with the objection that this would leave the parent category populated solely by those who identify as neither male nor female — a curiously narrow group to represent the literature of a nation.

It's not just America which is to be sifted by sex. I took a look at Victorian Novelists, and there you can find a single subcategory: Victorian Women Novelists. While some women get to sit in the main section, many don't — including George Eliot. George Eliot, arguably both the finest novelist and the most Victorian of all Victorian novelists, tucked away in a feminine dependency of literary history. No such fears of perverse classification for Hardy or Dickens, of course: Victorian Male Novelists doesn't even exist as a category, because to be a man is to be neutral of gender in this system. It doesn't feel like we've shaken off all that much of the sexism which caused Mary Anne Evans to publish Middlemarch under a male pseudonym, does it?

The problem is, it's not just Wikipedia doing the classifying and it's not just novelists getting classified. We live in a world where everything is furiously sorted along gender lines. As a parent with feminist pretensions, I've been discretely appalled to see both my children (one boy, one girl) start sorting things by gender. For example: jumpers turned out to be a boy thing, cardigans a girl thing, and no amount of cajoling could persuade either child that they weren't committing gender treachery through knitwear. Of course, I felt somewhat shocked and then betrayed that my children had turned against my principles — until I'd had a moment to think about the example they had to work with.

I might not always love my place in the gender binary system, but I certainly don't want to be outside it. Through my clothes, through my make-up, through my manner, every day I do a hundred small things that announce my fealty to femininity. I sort myself — almost all of us do. And such sorting is not particularly malevolent in itself, except that it tends to spread and then become a kind of destiny. There's a hierarchy to it, too: I've heard my daughter describe a classmate derisively as a "girly girl, one who just likes girl-girl-girl-girl-girl stuff." Not putting on your gender properly is traumatic, but too much femininity is something to be scorned.

It's this same way of thinking — male as the mainstream, female as a diminished subset — that led to faint murmurings against Hilary Mantel's inclusion on the shortlist for the 2013 Women's prize for fiction. Having already won two Bookers, the murmuring goes, why should she get a run with the ladies as well? She's already proven herself as a novelist, no gender qualifier required. In success, she sheds her sex. Of course, if I object to Wikipedia categorising women novelists apart, perhaps I should object to prizes that do the same – and I do, or rather I object to the necessity for them.

The Booker has been won twice as often by men as by women, and I refuse to believe that's because men are twice as talented. Until there's parity there, the Women's prize does a sadly needful job of celebrating female authors. Its existence perhaps perpetuates the need for it to exist, and yet I can't think of a better answer to pervasive sexism than just pointing out that women are, and the culture we make matters. That culture should not matter only within gender bounds though, and if we sort and sort until we have sorted ourselves into separate spheres entirely, God knows how many brilliant writers will be sorted away entirely, never making the cut as novelists because they're weighed down with the tag "woman".

Hilary Mantel, after winning her first Booker prize. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.