Wikipedia standards and the Roth affair

Here we discuss Philip Roth’s open letter to The New Yorker to get Wikipedia to change the “Inspiration” section of its article on his novel The Human Stain.  For those of you who just can’t get enough of this story, here is a deep dive into the back and forth in the revision history of the article, where we see the editors actually adding more detail to the incorrect discussion of Anatole Broyard possibly being the basis for the novel’s main character.

The post clears up one point for me.  Roth couldn’t have just posted his “open letter” on his own blog and claimed it was a secondary source.  Wikipedia is wise to that one:

Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason self-published media—whether books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, personal pages on social networking sites, Internet forum postings, or tweets—are largely not acceptable. This includes any website whose content is largely user-generated, including the Internet Movie Database (IMDB),,, collaboratively created websites such as wikis, and so forth, with the exception of material on such sites that is labeled as originating from credentialed members of the sites’ editorial staff, rather than users.

So Roth had to transform himself into his own secondary source by getting his letter published in The New Yorker.  That worked.  (We’ll probably never know why Roth felt the need to go to these lengths to correct the article. Presumably he didn’t write letters to the editor complaining when all those reviews raised the possibility that the novel was based on Broyard. And the fact that the reviews did raise the possibility is sort of noteworthy in its own right–perhaps not about the novel itself, but about the context in which the novel was written.  That’s a point that the Lawyers, Guns & Money blogger raises at the end of his post.)

I’m OK with Wikipedia’s policy on secondary sources, although I haven’t thought deeply about it.  Crowd-sourcing content obviously has its limits, and Wikipedia obviously has had to figure out a way to avoid complete anarchy.  I’m not sure I could come up with a better solution than they have.

So where are we with my little Wikipedia problem?  Jeff has kindly fixed the error in the publication date for Marlborough Street, and the fix is still there a day later.  The article uses this site as its source, which also has the date wrong, so that’s the problem.  But then there are any number of other sites offering used copies for sale and listing the publication date as 1987.  Do they count, I wonder?

2 thoughts on “Wikipedia standards and the Roth affair

  1. This will be an interesting test. When I made the correction, I cited as sources the copyright page in the original edition, plus personal knowledge of the manuscript and author. We’ll see if they accept that.


  2. Pingback: In which Wikipedia gets annoyed with my friend Jeff | richard bowker

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