Recently, when novelist Amanda Filipacchi was browsing through Wikipedia, she discovered, to her horror, that hundreds of writers who happened to be female were being removed from the category “American novelists" into a section called “American women novelists". It was first thought to be the work of one James Pack Lambert, a 32-year-old student of history with an Aristotelian passion for classification. It later emerged that not one but several other editors were involved in making these changes.

Any politics of classification is doomed to be skewed. Divisions are based on difference—and the “other" makes sense only when judged against the “self" along a scale of power. Since infancy, the thrust of human cognition is directed towards learning to distinguish between the weak and the strong, the haves and the have-nots, the normal and the abnormal. But labels like men, women, gay, straight, Dalit, Brahmin become amorphous, and often irrelevant, once we step outside the political and into the aesthetic realm.

We keep hearing about “women writers" or “LGBT writers" but never of “heterosexual writers" or “male writers"—each of which should be a valid category in this logic of classification. We do not think of Norman Mailer as a white, Caucasian, American heterosexual novelist but don’t hesitate to apply the label of African American woman novelist on Toni Morrison. Picasso is seldom described as a Spanish heterosexual artist, but Bhupen Khakhar is routinely called an Indian homosexual painter. Does the knowledge of the creator’s gender, sexual orientation or caste enrich our understanding of the creation? Or is this tyranny of context an example of cultural imperialism, one that perpetuates and entrenches inequalities?

Virginia Woolf touched on the intricacy of this “problem" in her comment on Max Beerbohm in “The Modern Essay." “We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word he writes," Woolf says of Beerbohm. “The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem."

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf insisted that writers must overcome their “sex-consciousness" to write well: “...it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex". This is perhaps the most consistent among the various, often contradictory, positions on gender that Woolf assumed in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Her general attitude is summed up in her vigorous rejection of feminism, in Three Guineas, in favour of a rights-based approach that, she believes, might be able to address the structures of inequality far better: “The word ‘feminist’ is destroyed; the air is cleared; and in that clearer air what do we see? Men and women working together for the same cause."

It’s a simple but pertinent point, one that resonates till this day. Margaret Atwood writes of a panel where Jan Morris, who was born James Humphrey Morris, had said that she was in the process of transcending gender and aiming at becoming a horse. To which Nayantara Sahgal, a fellow panellist, had replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. A remark, Atwood sagely observed, that “underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering."

This fortnightly column, which appears on Fridays, will talk about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.

Note: This story has been amended to incorporate subsequent developments.

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