Amanda Filipacchi has discovered that female American novelists are being moved from the “American Novelist” list to a “American Women Novelists” list on Wikipedia while male novelists remain on the “American Novelists” list.
This is sad, but Filipacchi’s New York Times piece on the subject ends on a hopeful note: since word got out, the trend had started to reverse. Makes sense: Internet trends change quickly. This one is blatantly lame. Thankfully, Wikipedia has a built-in resiliency to deal with this: the user-editor, the usefulness of which goes beyond Wikipedia or this particular issue.
That means any such insult should be correctable by the good sense of the reading public—and it seems to be happening. I first heard about this issue in the Times piece about 12 hours before writing this sentence. Now there’s a banner claiming that the list, “American Woman Novelists” might be merged with the “American Novelists” list. I looked up Joyce Carol Oates: turns out she’s an “American Novelist,” not an “American Woman Novelist,” while Louisa May Alcott remains only a “Woman Novelist” and Amy Tan is both. So we’re in progress, but I’d bet this gets sorted out for the better soon. (As I’ve edited this piece, Alcott has been restored to the “American Novelists” list).
My faith in that assumes the reading public will not stand for this bullshit. But while it’s easy to see how that works with a Wikipedia list, where the reader is the editor, such self-correction can work in other areas where bias can occur, such as in critical attention and reception.
Take the debate that occurred here in Canada last year, when Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) launched its mission to correct the male-bias it had identified in the national reviewing culture. There is not space here, for now, to really examine the effects that debate has had, but, as with the Wikipedia scandal, the very discussion CWILA started was an important first step in reversing the negative trend it identified. But after you call out a problem, what do you do? In the Wikipedia case, the public is in the process of fixing the problem. This is crucial.
When the CWILA issue raged last summer, I pointed out that The Puritan had received something like no review submissions from women, so how could we possibly have a balanced review section? That’s changed since, though only slightly, and we hope to keep that trend going (we still receive less reviews than we’d like in general, but that’s another issue). The point is that if woman reviewers aren’t being represented, it might have something to do with woman reviewers not sending reviews in. That’s not the whole issue—and I can only speak for The Puritan in that regard—but it’s definitely a big part of the issue.
It’s also pretty easy to change. While reviewing culture moves more slowly than a Wikipedia list, it can be moved by the same mechanism: active engagement from the (disgruntled) reading public. To return to my favourite example of this: when Langston Hughes thought about the lack of a Black theater, he complained. Then he realized there was a solution. Like Hughes, if we get pissed about public representation, we can ask who’s going to fix it, and we can answer, “yes, it’ll be me.”
This is how CWILA answered, this is how Lemon Hound answered and this is how Amanda Filipacchi answered, among others. For that I offer due props. Keep sticking it to the man.