In my favorite new illustration of the persistent belief that, when it comes to gender, male experience is considered general and unbiased while female experience is particular and annotated, novelist Amanda Filipacchi browsed through Wikipedia and found out that someone has been recategorizing entries on female American fiction writers so that they’re weeded out of the “American Novelists” category and ghettoized off in an “American Women Novelists” category — the “American Man Novelists” contains rather fewer entries. She writes in the New York Times:
I looked up a few female novelists. You can see the categories they’re in at the bottom of their pages. It appears that many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, have been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appear in the category “American Novelists.” If you look back in the “history” of these women’s pages, you can see that they used to appear in the category “American Novelists,” but that they were recently bumped down. Male novelists on Wikipedia, however — no matter how small or obscure they are — all get to be in the category “American Novelists.” It seems as though no one noticed.
I did more investigating and found other familiar names that had been switched from the “American Novelists” to the “American Women Novelists” category: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ayn Rand, Ann Beattie, Djuna Barnes, Emily Barton, Jennifer Belle, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Judy Blume, Alice Adams, Louisa May Alcott, V. C. Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark — and, upsetting to me: myself.
I can see a world where it makes sense to categorize novels, though not novelists, by their subject matter. Some days, I want to read about male experiences and read through the eyes of a male main character, somedays I want to live in a woman’s world, and others I want to hang out with, I don’t know, a genetically-engineered fifteen-year-old girl. There’s a service to readers in a project like that.
But sorting out authors by gender, and sorting out only female authors by gender, is an attempt to create a differing assessment of male and female writers. Novel-writing is not an inherently male activity. And it’s not even one that started out male and to which women had to gain entry. Female fiction writers like Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, scandal writers like Anne-Marguerite Petit du Noyer, and playwright and novelist Aphra Behn were all there at the beginning. A female perspective in fiction is no more distinct and particular — or offputting to large number of readers — than a male one, and visions like Ernest Hemingway’s or Saul Bellow’s are deeply tied up in their gender, rather than reflective of some American baseline. It’s not more substantive to care about fishing or war than it is to care about love or domestic life. But to acknowledge that male and female perspectives are both equally particular and equally interesting would require acknowledging that they’re both, well, equal.