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5 Reasons Writers Aren’t the Only Authority About Their Books

5 Reasons Writers Aren’t the Only Authority About Their Books

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 theWikipedia 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 timethe 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-timeNew 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 itsaccuracy 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. TheWikipedia entry about “The Human Stain” said that Broyard was “allegedly” an inspiration, not that heactually was.

In hisOpen Letter (which has now been referenced in theWikipedia 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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9:04AM PDT on Oct 17, 2012

it sucks but i still feel the author is the person who knows MOST what e meant, what was intended ect

1:39PM PDT on Oct 16, 2012


Thank you for this article.

First,there is the question of understanding. Is there a complete understanding of what the author have written, with the minimum question of personnal matter.

Then, everybody has his own viewpoint. The things are seen from this viewpoint. You could not change this easily. But you could agree to another viewpoint, if you would like to do it.
This could be completly different from the viewpoint of the author.

Also, human nature is not monolithic. One could have this feeling Monday and another feeling on the same question Friday. And this is true for a reader or a writter.

Some writter have changer completly of viewpoint in their life. If they are speaking of a book that they have written 25 years ago, they could expresse something completly different from this period of time.

Changing is part of life, and creation to. Do not be stuck in past. This is also the multitude of viewpoints which made the culture so rich and dense.

9:33PM PDT on Oct 11, 2012

this is such bs i am a writer and i am not only the best authority on my books i am the only authority wikipedia is bs!!!!

7:33AM PDT on Sep 25, 2012

I'm an author, and obviously the person who knows the most about the things I've written is me. A few examples:

The short story, "The Devil's Bride": The 'bride" is actually male.

a currently unnamed novella: the main character is referred to as "she": he is male.

I am the only one knwing these things before I told my editor because she asked about a few "odd" sentences I had written. So I ask: who is a better authority on the written word then the writer themself?

9:37PM PDT on Sep 17, 2012

Tempest in a teapot.

2:00PM PDT on Sep 17, 2012


12:30PM PDT on Sep 17, 2012


3:24AM PDT on Sep 17, 2012


4:08PM PDT on Sep 16, 2012

sucks I guess, but people like to lie or pour out misinformation :/

11:15AM PDT on Sep 16, 2012

Sorry, hadn't read previous comments - Xerxes X said it better!

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