Philip Roth’s lingering stain on Wikipedia’s reputation

Novelist Philip Roth in 1973

Philip Roth was feeling irked.

Wikipedia’s writeup (as of 2012) of his bestselling novel, The Human Stain, was (he contended) inaccurate; and despite Roth’s efforts to correct it through private correspondence, Wikipedia’s cadre of volunteer editors wouldn’t budge. At issue: over the years, writers for the Journal of Higher Education, the New York Times, The Nation, and several other publications had speculated that the book’s main character, Coleman Silk, was based on a man named Anatole Broyard. But according to Roth, that was completely untrue. In his open letter to Wikipedia, Roth went so far as to describe an “alleged allegation” — suggesting, preposterously and incorrectly, that nobody had even alleged that Silk and Broyard were connected.

So yes — Roth had a problem.

But despite his protestations to the contrary — which have proven surprisingly tenacious in the news media’s ongoing effort to make sense of Wikipedia — his problem was not a Wikipedia problem. Roth was indeed irked, and he chose Wikipedia as the target of his irk. But take a close look at Wikipedia’s irksome text, as of August 2012:

Kakutani and other critics were struck by the parallels to the life of Anatole Broyard, …[4][5][6]

Roth said that he had not learned about Broyard’s ancestry until after starting to write this novel.[7]

What, exactly, did Roth want Wikipedia to say? Perhaps adding a sentence like the following would have satisfied him:

In private correspondence with a Wikipedia editor — noted here, in an unprecedented violation of Wikipedia policy, and in a way that no reader can verify independently — Roth further elaborated that the character was in fact based on his friend Melvin Tumin.[citation needed]

Is that the kind of thing you want to read in an encyclopedia? I would hope not.

Roth’s problem was not, in fact, a problem with Wikipedia. It was a problem with the totality of the critical speculation, up to that date, on the origin of the Silk character. Wikipedia was doing exactly what an encyclopedia should do; it was accurately presenting what had been published on the topic. Wikipedia neither endorsed nor disputed the critics’ speculations. Wikipedia merely stated that the speculation existed; it even went a step further, noting that Roth had rebutted the point, even though that rebuttal had been a mere passing comment in a 2008 interview.

Upon the New Yorker’s publication of Roth’s letter in 2012, of course, the Wikipedia entry was promptly updated. Roth, it would appear, had prevailed, with the rhetorical flourish his readers have come to expect.

Had Roth finally, after several tries in private, articulated his position with sufficient rhetorical force to persuade Wikipedia’s editors? No. Well, perhaps by going to a public venue, he had finally exposed an ill-advised decision by a Wikipedia editor to a sufficiently broad audience, and finally earned a closer look at his case? Again: no.

By writing a letter and then publishing it for the world to see, Roth had finally taken a step that actually merited a change to the article. As of today, the expanded section of the Human Stain’s Wikipedia entry includes this sentence:

On September 7, 2012, Roth wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker in which he dismissed critics’ earlier suggestions that his novel was inspired by Anatole Broyard.[4]

It then goes on to detail some of Roth’s points. Take careful note of the footnote above: now, because there is a worthwhile reference to cite, the reader can properly hear from Roth about the origin of the Silk character. But prior to the open letter, there was no justification for Wikipedia to detail Roth’s position, because that position had never been articulated in public.

Roth’s case has captured the public’s imagination, though, not as a story of the strength of Wikipedia’s editorial process, but as an example of the site’s shortcomings. I am frequently asked about this case in private discussion; and it continues to be cited in the broader discourse about Wikipedia.

Sharyl Attkisson's misleading characterization of Roth's case begins at 3:57.

Sharyl Attkisson’s misleading characterization of Roth’s case begins at 3:57.

In February 2015, for instance, noted journalist Sharyl Attkisson presented Roth’s case as an example of Wikipedia’s dysfunction. Amazingly, she did so in the context of a talk intended to enlighten her audience about the dynamics behind the media we consume; but in presenting Roth’s case at face value, she ended up not debunking a myth, but perpetuating one.

Wikipedia and its processes are far from perfect. Critics have rightly called attention to numerous issues with Wikipedia, such as the heavily skewed demographics of its contributors, the (related) bias reflected in the kind of content it does and does not present, the widespread anonymity in its editorial community, and the gamable nature of its policies. Such concerns are real, and deserve careful consideration.

But in this instance, Wikipedia’s editors nailed it. They held the line against the wishes of a popular author, who had requested special treatment, and whose request was wholly without merit.

Perhaps Roth wanted his story to be told, without having to go to the trouble of telling it himself. Instead of addressing his irk to the community of literary critics, with whom he actually had a substantive disagreement, he chose to shake his fist at the mirror — Wikipedia — that was accurately and dispassionately presenting those critics’ (apparently flawed) analysis of his work.

The world doesn’t work like that. Wikipedia does not, and should not, exist to offer a shortcut to frustrated novelists. Wikipedians held the line; and when Roth reacted (with an extra dose of exasperation), everyone with an interest in the novel benefited from a clearer exposition.

To revisit his chief complaint about Wikipedia: Why is Philip Roth not an acceptable source for a Wikipedia article on Philip Roth?

It’s because what people say and think evolves from day to day, week to week, year to year. Memory fails us, opinions change, and sometimes we recall things not as they happened, but as we wish they had happened. Authors — like politicians, sports stars, artists, and pretty much everybody else on the planet — are not always the most reliable source regarding their own lives, or about anything else. Wikipedia’s policies (specifically, those concerning original research and verifiability) are designed to guide us toward reporting verifiable facts (like “Roth said this, on this date”) rather than ephemeral, speculative reflections (like “this character arose out of this exact cognitive process”).

When Roth’s letter appeared in the New Yorker, it established a fact that will not change. It became a record of what one man said on one day in history. Regardless of what Roth or anybody else might say in the future, that fact is now established — and worthy of recording in a global encyclopedia.

And if not for a Wikipedia volunteer with the presence of mind to say “no, Mr. Roth, we will not make that exception, not even for you,” we would not have that fact to report.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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