Wikipedia Irks Philip Roth With Reluctance To Edit Entry About His Novel

Sep 7, 2012
Originally published on September 7, 2012 7:24 pm

In the past, Wikpedia has had to deal with accusations that its entries are edited too easily, and perhaps by unqualified writers. But this week, the online encyclopedia is dealing with charges that its entries are too tough to edit — and the accuser is author Philip Roth, who was frustrated in his attempt to correct a mistake on the site's entry about his 2000 novel The Human Stain.

Here's the crux of Roth's argument, which he made today in an open letter in The New Yorker:

"My novel "The Human Stain" was described in the entry as 'allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.' (The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia's collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands.)

"This alleged allegation is in no way substantiated by fact. "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 thirty years."

Roth says that his earlier attempt to correct the entry was met with an Aug. 25 letter from the "English Wikipedia Administrator," who stood firm in requiring secondary sources, despite understanding that "that the author is the greatest authority on their own work."

As Ars Technica reports, the entry has now been modified — in fact, it now includes Roth's efforts to correct the impression that Broyard inspired him, including the open letter he wrote to Wikipedia. Here's how that section reads:

"Roth was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic. Roth has repeatedly said these speculations are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard's ancestry until "months and months after" starting to write the novel."

The incident brings to mind shades of Annie Hall, and the famous movie-theater scene in which Woody Allen is driven bonkers by a man standing behind him in the ticket line, ceaselessly spouting opinions.

When the man cites cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan, Allen has had enough. An argument ensues — and then Allen brings McLuhan himself out from behind a screen.

"I heard what you were saying," he tells Allen's nemesis. "You know nothing of my work."

"Boy," Allen says, looking into the camera. "If life were only like this."

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