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”.