Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Category: American Women Novelists

A lot of digital ink has been spilled in the past week about the banishment of American novelists of the female persuasion from the Wikipedia category "American Novelists" to the category "American Women Novelists." (These pages are in a great deal of flux right now.) The virtual re-ordering plucks at a very real, very old, very familiar chord in literature, encapsulated by Joyce Carol Oates's tweet: "All (male) writers are writers; a (woman) writer is a woman writer." The reorganization would also leave us with a Wikipedia--that first step to every research project, that democratic knowledge fountain, that approximate frame for our universe--that defines "American Novelist" as "white male." "How did this happen?" asks "The New York Review of Books." As with all major national trends, it started in Detroit:
It turns out that a single editor brought on the crisis: a thirty-two-year-old student of history named John Pack Lambert, enrolled at Wayne State University and living in the Detroit suburbs. He’s a seven-year veteran of Wikipedia and something of an obsessive when it comes to categories. He creates a lot of them. Last year he briefly created Category: American people of African-American descent. Then he raised hackles by recreating the defunct category American “actresses,” a word that others felt belongs in the same dustbin as “poetess.”
The NYRB article is worth a read. (Friend to Damn Arbor Ed Vielmetti is the first commenter I see on the post! We're everywhere!) For purposes of enjoying good literature, I find ordering novelists by their sex about as useful as ordering food by its color. However, I am sympathetic to the cultural value of recognizing novelists who have had the extra burden of writing from any perspective that is not "white" and "male": as this latest Wikipedia kerfuffle highlights, their acceptance into the American story is a fight we're still fighting. Why categorization as an "American Woman Novelist" precludes a writer from categorization as an "American Novelist" is beyond me.

But I'm just a woman blogger.

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