Philip Roth and Wikipedia

By Oliver Keyes

This blog post, as with all the others I write, is written in my personal capacity as a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and not in my role with the Wikimedia Foundation. Why I’m making this statement explicitly for a change should become readily apparent if you read past the first few lines.

For anyone who has been living under a rock/does not read the New Yorker/is not involved in the Wikimedia movement, a brief recap: the author Philip Roth is having a spat with Wikipedia over its coverage of his book The Human Stain, specifically who the article claims inspired the character Coleman Silk. In Roth’s own words:

Dear Wikipedia,

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.

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, 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.”

Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.

Roth then goes on to explain that while our article claimed Anatole Broyard was the inspiration, the inspiration was in fact Melvin Tumin.

Said “open letter” was published in the New Yorker, thus enabling Roth to provide a secondary source and also give Wikipedia a big “screw you” for not just taking him on his word. And, since the open letter was published, the content has been changed, and the intertubes have chosen it as an opportunity to examine and critique how Wikipedia approaches the problem of sourcing and commentary by people associated with an article’s subject. Organisations, sites and newspapers providing coverage include _The Guardian_, ABC News, the Los Angeles Times, and many other media organisations. All of them, of course, are reporting precisely what Roth claimed happened.

There’s only one problem with this: Roth’s open letter is at best the (justifiably) aggrieved and confused ramblings of a man who doesn’t understand or remember the event, and at worst a deliberately malicious act inspired by nothing more than a misguided desire to flip us the Vs and maybe get paid by the New Yorker on the way.

Lets go through his account again, shall we?

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.

False. There was absolutely no misstatement in the article. What the article claimed at the time he wrote this open letter was that “Kakutani and other critics were struck by the parallels to the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and the New York Times literary critic in the 1950s and 1960s who was of Louisiana Creole mixed-race descent and passed for white”.

This is entirely correct. Kakutani was struck by the parallels, and has stated this, as have Brent Staples in the New York Times and several other literary reviewers and critics. The “misstatement” was in fact “reviewers made statements that he considered incorrect, and Wikipedia mentioned they had made these statements”. Not only is this not Wikipedia’s fault, it isn’t even a “misstatement”. We are reporting what critics have said, and identifying it as the statement of critics rather than the truth. Those critics are not claiming that Broyard was the person who inspired the character, merely that there are parallels between Broyard and the character, and our article reflects this.

It would be a “misstatement” for us to say “the character was influenced by Broyard”. It would be a “misstatement” for us to bluntly say “there are parallels between Broyard and this character”, without making clear that we are not the ones drawing that conclusion. But we did not make the first claim, and we attributed the second. Roth either didn’t actually read the article, or did but thinks that There Is No Truth But That Of Philip Roth.

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others,

False. Petitioned is such a nice word, isn’t it? Certainly nicer than “I instructed my biographer to remove a claim that was not in and of itself false, something he persisted in doing even after an editor had explicitly asked my biographer to verify his change and undone my biographer’s edit, and then I complained that Wikipedia had not been willing to believe that a pair of anonymous IP addresses were my official biographer, even though said anonymous IPs directly stated that they were”.

Presumably Philip Roth would be perfectly fine with me claiming to be the Easter Bunny.

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.”

False. Nobody ever claimed Roth was not a “credible” source. As the quotes demonstrate, the administrator in question accepted Roth’s claim that he was an authority on his own works, but demanded secondary sources. If Roth is incapable of distinguishing between credible/non-credible and primary/secondary, this is his problem to work through and his editor’s excuse to ask for a substantial pay raise. And a whisky.

Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.

False, on two fronts. The first is “the usual channels” – you see, Roth did not email the Open-source Ticket Requests System (OTRS), the traditional channel for people taking issues with their articles, and one that is easily findable from the contact us page that readers are linked to every time they open any wikipedia page. According to some of my fellow sysops, he emailed our account unblocking software. Quite how he found it, I don’t know, but “usual channels” it is not.

Second, and most crucially – this was not his only way of proceeding. He did not have to write an open letter in the New Yorker. Sure, it makes for a good story – Roth is told by an administrator that he needs a secondary source, so he writes one to fling it back at us – but it isn’t the truth. Because Roth had already stated in an interview that Broyard had no link to the character.

And the Wikipedia article already included this statement, along with a link to the accompanying secondary source.

Now. I don’t know if Philip Roth is (a) unable to remember his own statements to the press, correctly characterise or describe the actions of him and his agents, read things he’s critiquing and understand the distinction between credibility and categorisation of sources or (b) simply trying to cause a fuss and maybe have the New Yorker bung him a few quid in exchange for acting like a whiny, sanctimonious child incapable of understanding why we’d obliterate coverage of his work’s literary criticism because The Author Says So.

What I do know is the following:

First, this is not a fundamental flaw in Wikipedia’s central precepts – this is one author and his agents being unable to navigate the internet and/or report the truth with any degree of accuracy. This is our attempt to make our information not only accurate, but verifiable – to ensure that readers have a hope in hell of actually checking the accuracy of our information. This is not achieved by enabling subjects to become the oracles of truth for any article that mentions them, or telling readers “we know it’s accurate because Philip Roth said so, and you’ll just have to trust us on that”. We don’t want readers to trust us. We want readers to think and be able to do their own research.

Second, maybe (although I doubt it) we need to have a frank debate over how we handle primary and secondary sourcing. But for all of the reasons explained above, Philip Roth and the Editorial of Azkaban is a terrible poster boy for such a debate.

Third: people should perhaps start having a debate about the way authors are treated in “proper” sources. The New Yorker, the Guardian, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times – all respected bodies. And all, without being able and/or willing to do their own research, happily published or republished Roth’s assertions. We rely on these organisations for reporting what our politicians do, what our armed forces do, how entities with the power of life and death over humanity are accountable to the people. And they happily gulp down the glorified press releases of anyone who offers to let them touch his Pulitzer.

And you think Wikipedia is what we should be concerned about?