Last week, a famous novelist was informed that he is not a “credible source” for a book that he wrote.
Specifically, writer Philip Roth, finding that the Wikipedia entry about his novel”The Human Stain” contained an inaccuracy about the real person on whom the novel’s main character, Coleman Silk, was based, contacted Wikipedia to revise its entry. Wikipedia stuck to its principles, with an “English Wikipedia Administrator” informing Roth that “we understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”
On Friday, on the Page-Turner blog of The New Yorker, Roth published An Open Letter to Wikipedia in which he explained the Kafkaesque situation of being told that he is not a credible source for his own novel.
I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip — there is no truth in it at all.
Wikipedia’s entry said that Silk was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard,” a long-time New York Times cultural critic who was African-American but passed as white.
In his letter, Roth states, in no uncertain terms, that “The Human Stain” was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some 30 years. That “unhappy event” involved accusations of racism — of a hate crime — against Tumin that, as Roth details, nearly destroyed the professor’s 40 year academic career as a “specialist in race relations.” Back in 2008 in a Bloomberg interview, Roth insisted that Broyard was not the inspiration for Silk.
But on closer investigation, Wikipedia may have a point. Here’s five reasons why:
1) “The Human Stain” is a novel, a work of fiction. Wikipedia presents itself to be, and/or is viewed to be, a purveyor of information that is not made up, or is not supposed to be made up; of non-fiction. In recent decades, the line between works of fiction and works of non-fiction has been blurred, as writers — including Roth himself — have mixed what might be autobiographical content with what is fictional narrative.
2) Wikipedia’s reliability has long been suspect but its accuracy has actually grown since its earliest days, as academics and experts have started contributing to it.
Nonetheless, Wikipedia users are accustomed to reading its entries with the expectation that there will be mistakes. Its reliability is criticized in no small part because of its democratic editing process in which anonymous individuals who are not experts in the infinite amount of Wikipedia topics review the entries. (There is, of course, a Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia reliability.)
3) Hailed as offering a body of information from the “hive mind” and not that from a few privileged members of the Ivy Tower, Wikipedia has gained a reputation for giving a sense of what is commonly thought about a topic. What counts more, the opinions and ideas of many (albeit anonymous) people, or that of one author with very particular ideas?
4) Wikipedia didn’t exactly say that Roth modeled his novel’s character on Broyard. The Wikipedia entry about “The Human Stain” said that Broyard was “allegedly” an inspiration, not that he actually was.
In his Open Letter (which has now been referenced in the Wikipedia entry about “The Human Stain“), Roth writes that “Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend.” Of course, novels are made up and are fiction. Roth asserts that you can’t just make any claims about a novel’s “game of let’s pretend” unless you are the author.
But by “alleging” that Roth might have based a character on Broyard, might Wikipedia have been urging readers to do some more research to figure out the truth about the character of Coleman Silk?
5) For ages, writers have been vexed by the problem of what happens to their writing after it’s published and leaves their “protection.” Semel emissum volat irrevocabile verbum, “once uttered, a word flies and can’t be called back,” Ennius, a poet of the Roman Republic, wrote.
More recently, French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a 1967 essay entitled “The Death of the Author,” in which he made the point that a writer’s own opinions and intentions should have no more weight on the meaning and reading of his or her work than that of anyone else; that an author’s claims about his or her writing are no more valid than that of anyone else. Wikipedia, by telling Roth he was no more a credible source than the next person for “The Human Stain,” is acting in the spirit of Barthes.
Is a writer the best authority about what he or she wrote?
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