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: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.