Books News & Features
3:00 pm
Mon April 29, 2013

What's In A Category? 'Women Novelists' Spark Wiki-Controversy

Originally published on Mon April 29, 2013 3:48 pm

It all started one night when writer Amanda Filipacchi was browsing through Wikipedia and noticed an absence of women under the category "American novelists." At first, she thought the female writers being moved off the page were not important enough to be on it. But then she discovered some obscure male novelists were still listed, while some well-known women were not.

These female writers were all being systematically moved to a new list called "American women novelists" — a move that has sparked the latest controversy about the status of female writers in the literary world.

Filipacchi explains that someone at Wikipedia thought the list of American novelists had just gotten to be too big and needed to be broken down into subcategories. "Most of those subcategories are genres," she explains, "like science fiction, thriller, mystery and then, women writers -- as though women novelists are a genre of writing."

Filipacchi wrote about her discovery in The New York Times, accusing Wikipedia of sexism. Soon after, the "American novelists" page disappeared, then reappeared, and women's names gravitated back onto the list. Filipacchi says someone tampered with her own Wikipedia page, and a massive discussion of the issue got underway.

"The debate ... it's actually still ongoing," says Ryan Kaldari, an editor at Wikipedia. "So far it looks like there's been about 33,000 words of discussion on it, which is quite a lot. It's actually more than the novel Animal Farm."

Kaldari says that the editor who moved the names of female writers off the page violated Wikipedia's guidelines about gender-specific pages, and that the problem is in the process of being addressed. But he also says this is not the first time Wikipedia has been accused of sexism.

"Wikipedia does have problems with sexism because, as a lot of people know, only about 10 percent or less of the editors at Wikipedia are women," Kaldari says. "And so a lot of times there's this subconscious, white, male, privileged sexism that exists on Wikipedia that isn't really acknowledged."

Kaldari says he is surprised that this particular issue attracted so much attention. But novelist Meg Wolitzer says this is just the latest example of female writers being relegated to "second shelf" status.

"I think we are still stuck to some extent on these ideas of books written by different genders, and that they have different roles in the world of literature," Wolitzer says.

Wolitzer says some female novelists don't mind if their books are categorized as "women's fiction," but she does.

"We've seen first-rate novels by women sometimes sort of thoughtlessly grouped together as 'women's fiction.' " Wolitzer says. "And that's a phrase that can make me a little crazy. I mean, what is women's fiction? Do these books have anything in common, or is it just that the authors were all at one time or another in possession of a uterus?"

For her part, Filipacchi says she believes Wikipedia has no choice but to address the issues she's raised. "It's so laughable," she says. "I think in 20 years, or hopefully in one year, looking back on this, people won't even believe that this was going on."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last up this hour, a controversy over Wikipedia and the status of women writers. A recent op-ed in The New York Times pointed out that women were being moved off of Wikipedia's list of American novelists. They were being placed in their own separate category. AS NPR's Lynn Neary reports, that sparked charges of sexism and a lively debate on Wikipedia.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: It all started when writer Amanda Filipacchi was browsing through Wikipedia one night when she noticed an absence of women under the category American novelists. At first, she thought the women writers being moved off the page were not important enough to be on it, but then she discovered some very obscure male novelists were still listed and some very well-known women were not.

AMANDA FILIPACCHI: Donna Tartt, Anne Rice, Harper Lee, Ann Beattie, there were lots and lots of them.

NEARY: These writers and many more were being systematically moved to a new list called American women novelists. Filipacchi says someone at Wikipedia thought the list of American novelists had just gotten to be too big.

FILIPACCHI: And so they have to find ways to find subcategories, and they consider that women writers is a very good subcategory, for example. And most of those subcategories are genres, like science fiction, thriller, mystery and then women writers, as though women novelists are a genre of writing.

NEARY: Filipacchi wrote about her discovery in The New York Times, charging Wikipedia with sexism. Soon after, the American novelists page disappeared, then reappeared; women's names gravitated back onto the list. Filipacchi says someone tampered with her own Wikipedia page, and a massive discussion of the issue got under way. Ryan Kaldari is an editor at Wikipedia.

RYAN KALDARI: The debate that's going on right now, it's actually still ongoing. So far, it looks like there's been about 33,000 words of discussion on it, which is quite a lot. It's actually more than, you know, the novel "Animal Farm."

NEARY: Kaldari says the editor who moved the names of women writers off the page violated Wikipedia's guidelines about gender-specific pages, and the problem is in the process of being addressed. He says it's not the first time Wikipedia has been accused of sexism.

KALDARI: Wikipedia does have problems with sexism because, as a lot of people know, only about 10 percent or less of the editors at Wikipedia are women. And so a lot of times, there's kind of this subconscious, you know, white male privileged sexism that exists on Wikipedia that isn't really acknowledged.

NEARY: Kaldari says he is surprised that this particular issue attracted so much attention, but novelist Meg Wolitzer says this is just the latest example of women writers being relegated to second-shelf status.

MEG WOLITZER: Well, I think we're still stuck to some extent on these ideas of books written by different genders, and that they have different roles in the world of literature.

NEARY: Wolitzer says some women novelists don't mind if their books are categorized as women's fiction, but she does.

WOLITZER: We've see first-rate novels by women sometimes sort of thoughtlessly grouped together as women's fiction, and that's a phrase that can make me a little bit crazy. I mean, what is women's fiction? Do these books have anything in common, or is it just that the authors were all at one time or another in possession of a uterus.

NEARY: For her part, Amanda Filipacchi says she believes Wikipedia has no choice but to address the issues she's raised.

FILIPACCHI: It's so laughable. I think in 20 years or hopefully in one year looking back on this, people won't even believe that this was going on.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMIC OPERA, "THE MIKADO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ko-Ko) (Singing) There's that singular anomaly, the lady novelist. Well, I don't think she'd be missed. I'm sure she'd not be missed.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.