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

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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."

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