As almost everyone on the Internet is no doubt already aware, Wikipedia is an impressive tool and treasure trove of information, put together in such a way that makes crowdsourcing an encyclopedia seem like not such a bad idea after all. After all, who can fault the idea of requiring secondary sources to back up every important fact inserted into a specific entry? Well, Philip Roth, as it turns out; the award-winning author has found out that he can’t correct a misconception about one of his novels due to the way Wikipedia works, and has taken to the Internet to explain his case.
Roth posted an open letter to Wikipedia on the New Yorker’s website after reading the Wiki entry about his novel The Human Strain, and finding it to be incorrect. Unfortunately, because of the need for multiple sources when it comes to correcting information on a particular entry – especially when said information has itself been cited by multiple sources – he found that it wasn’t as easy as contacting the site, saying “Actually, that’s my book, so I am kind of the last word on this kind of thing” and then watching as the entry gets corrected.
“Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete [the incorrect assertion] along with two others,” Roth explains in the letter, “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.’”
The problematic statement in the Wikipedia entry revolves around the origins of The Human Strain. According to Wikipedia, the book was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard,” something that Roth denies, pointing out instead that the novel “inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.” Going on to point out the similarities between Tumin and Coleman Silk, the novel’s protagonist, Roth continues his letter by pointing out the many ways in which Silk could not have been inspired by Broyard. “To be inspired to write an entire book about a man’s life,” Roth explains, “you must have considerable interest in the man’s life, and, to put it candidly, though I particularly admired the story ‘What the Cystoscope Said’ when it appeared in 1954, and I told the author as much, over the years I otherwise had no particular interest in Anatole Broyard.”
At time of writing, the Wikipedia entry for The Human Stain still maintains that Broyard was the inspiration for the book, although it notes that “Roth has repeatedly said these opinions are false,” and even cites the New Yorker open letter as proof of this. Clearly, he needs to write a second open letter, and claim that one as his secondary source.