Literature

It Takes an Open Letter to Wikipedia for Philip Roth to Get a Correction

In the New Yorker, no less.
 It Takes an Open Letter to Wikipedia for Philip Roth to Get a Correction

Mr. Roth, literary lion. (Photo: flickr.com/cdrummbks)

Like any good high school English teacher, Wikipedia requires writers to cite sources. The site can’t have the subject of an article merely leap in and say, “NUH-UH.” How would they ever write anything negative about anyone, were it otherwise? Winona Ryder might like to edit that business about shoplifting right out of her biography, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And that is why Philip Roth had to publish an open letter to Wikipedia–in the New Yorker–to get the crowd-created encyclopedia to admit that his book, The Human Stain, was probably not based on the life of literary critic Anatole Broyard. (In the course of his lengthy rebuttal, Mr. Roth refers to it as a “falsity,” based upon “the babble of literary gossip.”)

At first, he “petitioned” Wikipedia “to delete this misstatement, along with two others,” through an “official interlocutor.” The response:

My interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

Outrage! Pistols at dawn! And so Mr. Roth was forced to produce an incredibly detailed accounting of just how poorly he knew Mr. Broyard, and just how utterly the novel was based on the life of someone else entirely:

It is this [incident] that inspired me to write “The Human Stain”: not something that may or may not have happened in the Manhattan life of the cosmopolitan literary figure Anatole Broyard but what actually did happen in the life of Professor Melvin Tumin, sixty miles south of Manhattan in the college town of Princeton, New Jersey, where I had met Mel, his wife, Sylvia, and his two sons when I was Princeton’s writer-in-residence in the early nineteen-sixties.

However, it does appear that Mr. Roth can now rest assured, because his open letter was sufficient to meet Wikipedia’s sky-high standards of evidence. The article in question now includes the following passage:

In a 2012, Roth wrote an open letter to Wikipedia, after his efforts to correct this entry were thwarted because he was told he did not have a secondary source for his inspiration. He was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry that Kakutani and other critics have incorrectly speculated that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic.[5][6][7] However, Roth has repeatedly said these opinions are false. Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard’s ancestry until after starting to write The Human Stain.[8]

Woe unto those of you unable to, on a moment’s notice, bring such an august institution as the New Yorker to bear on your literary tiffs.

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