Philip Roth writes a letter to Wikipedia, and we should all read it

This is pretty funny, and a little sad.  Philip Roth came across an inaccuracy in the Wikipedia article about his novel The Human Stain.  The article stated that the novel was “allegedly based on the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”  But it wasn’t.  Roth informed Wikipedia of the error, but the Wikipedia refused to make a change:

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.”

So he wrote an open letter to The New Yorker instead, giving the background of the novel, which is about a college professor who gets caught up in a political correctness scandal.

Anatole Broyard was a literary critic who never acknowledged that he was of African-American ancestry.  The main character of The Human Stain is a professor who never acknowledged his African-American ancestry.  So that’s where reviewers made the connection.  But Roth goes to great lengths to make the case that this connection isn’t correct. “Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend,” he says.  He took a germ of an idea–a muddle-headed remark made in class by a friend of his at Princeton, and its consequences–and populated a novel from it.

The Human Stain is great, but I particularly admire the shorter novels he been writing lately.  The Humbling was too over-the-top with the standard Roth sexual fantasies for my taste (and that of most critics, I think).  But Nemesis, about an imagined polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, was powerful and moving.

But back to Wikipedia.  Its article about The Human Stain is now up to date, citing Roth’s explanation of the novel’s genesis.  They don’t waste any time!  And now I may be inspired to tackle an error in my brief and uninteresting Wikipedia writeup: it says Marlborough Street was published in 1975, but it was actually published in 1987; I still hadn’t learned how to write in 1975.  They’ve got secondary sources that also list the book as being published in 1975, so apparently they’re not going to take my word for it.  I have no idea where that date came from.  I wonder if they’ll accept this blog post as a source?  I suppose I could post a photo of the copyright page . . .

4 thoughts on “Philip Roth writes a letter to Wikipedia, and we should all read it

  1. Let’s wait and see how effective I was in changing the status quo. The last time I edited anything on w’pedia was several years ago, when I fixed something on my own page, and got some flack for it. Maybe I should have asked you to do it. (Or Philip Roth.)


  2. Pingback: Philip Roth is retiring | richard bowker

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