The case of Philip Roth vs Wikipedia

As Wikipedia becomes an increasingly dominant part of our digital media diet, what was once anomalous has become a regular occurrence.

Someone surfing the net comes face to face with a Wikipedia article — about himself. Or about her own work.

There’s erroneous information that needs to be fixed, but Wikipedia’s ten-year old tangle of editing policies stands in the way, and its boisterous editing community can be fearsome.

If a person can put the error into the public spotlight, then publicly shaming Wikipedia’s volunteers into action can do the trick. But not without some pain.

The most recent episode?

The case of Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer Philip Roth.

His bestselling novel “The Human Stain” tells the story of fictional character Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who presents himself as having a Jewish background and the trials he faces after leaving his university job in disgrace. Widely read and highly acclaimed, the book was reviewed or referenced by many famous writers, such as Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin of the New York Times and the noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  [1] [2] [3]

The Broyard Theory

But there was a standing mystery about the novel.

After the book’s release in 2000, Roth had not elaborated on the inspiration for the professor Silk character . Over the years, it had become the subject of speculation, with most of the literary world pointing to Anatole Broyard, a famous writer and NY Times critic who “passed” in white circles without explicitly acknowledging his African American roots.

In 2000, Salon.com’s Charles Taylor wrote about Roth’s new book:

The thrill of gossip become literature hovers over “The Human Stain”: There’s no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years.

Brent Staples’ 2003 piece in the NY Times  described Silk as a “character who jettisons his black family to live as white was strongly reminiscent of Mr. Broyard.”

Janet Maslin wrote the book was “seemingly prompted by the Broyard story.”

It was such a widely held notion, the Broyard connection was incorporated into the Wikipedia article on “The Human Stain.”

An early 2005 version of the Wikipedia entry cited Henry Louis Gates Jr., and by March 2008, it relayed the theory from Charles Taylor’s Salon.com review.

The view was so pervasive, a list of over a dozen notable citations from prominent writers and publications were found by Wikipedia editors.

Wikipedians researching the topic came across articles as secondary sources that drew parallels between Silk and Anatole Broyard. The references were verifiable, linkable prose from notable writers and respected publications. The core policies of Wikipedia — verifiability, using reliable sources and not undertaking original research — were upheld by using reputable content as the basis for the conclusions.

Roth Explains It All

However, information from Roth in 2008 changed things.

Bloomberg News did an interview with the author about his new book at the time, “Indignation.” Towards the end of the interview, he was asked a casual question about “The Human Stain:”

Hilferty: Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in “The Human Stain,” based on anyone you knew?
Roth: No. There was much talk at the time that he was based on a journalist and writer named Anatole Broyard. I knew Anatole slightly, and I didn’t know he was black. Eventually there was a New Yorker article describing Anatole’s life written months and months after I had begun my book. So, no connection.

It might have been the first time Roth went on the record saying there was no connection between the fictional Silk and real-life writer Broyard. It seems to be the earliest record on the Internet of this fact.

Fast forward to 2012, and according to Roth, he read the Wikipedia article for [[The Human Stain]] for the first time, and found the erroneous assertions about Anatole Broyard as a template for his main character. In August 2012, Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey, became an interlocutor who tried to change the Wikipedia entry to remove the false information. It became an unexpected tussle with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.

Unfortunately for Roth, by the rules of Wikipedia, first-hand information from the mouth of the author does not immediately change Wikipedia. The policies of verifiability and forbidding original research prevent a direct email or a phone call to Wikpedia’s governing foundation or its volunteers from being the final word.

Enter The New Yorker

Frustrated with the process, Roth wrote a long article for the New Yorker, detailing his Wikipedia conundrum. He provided an exhaustive description of the actual inspiration for the professor Silk character: his friend and Princeton professor, Melvin Tumin.

“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.
And it is this that inspired me to write “The Human Stain”: not something that may or may not have happened in the Manhattan life of the cosmopolitan literary figure Anatole Broyard but what actually did happen in the life of Professor Melvin Tumin, sixty miles south of Manhattan in the college town of Princeton, New Jersey, where I had met Mel, his wife, Sylvia, and his two sons when I was Princeton’s writer-in-residence in the early nineteen-sixties.

Good enough. But the problem arose when Roth attempted to correct the information in Wikipedia with the help of Bailey, his biographer. He wrote:

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.”

 

Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.

The frustration is understandable. That someone’s first-hand knowledge about their own work could be rejected in this manner seems inane. But it’s a fundamental working process of Wikipedia. It depends on reliable (secondary) sources to vet and vouch for the information.

Because of this, Wikipedia is fundamentally a curated tertiary source — when it works, it’s a researched and verified work that points to references both original and secondary, but mostly the latter.

It’s garbage in, garbage out. It’s only as good as the verifiable sources and references it can link to.

But it is also this policy that infuriates many Wikipedia outsiders.

During the debate over Roth’s edits, one Wikipedia administrator (an experienced editor in the volunteer community) cited Wikipedia’s famous refrain:

Verifiability, not truth, is the burden.
- ChrisGualtieri (talk) 15:53, 8 September 2012 (UTC)

By design, Wikipedia’s community couldn’t use an email from an original source as the final word. Wikipedia depends on information from a reliable source in a tangible form, and the verification it provides.

Reliable sources perform the gatekeeping function familiar in academic publishing, where peer review guarantees a level of rigor and fact checking from those with established track records.

But even with rigorous references, verifiability can be hard.

Consider Roth’s New Yorker piece, where he says:

“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.

Compare that to the 2008 interview, when asked, “Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in “The Human Stain,” based on anyone you knew?” Roth said, “No.

This would seem to contradict the New Yorker article. This doesn’t make Roth dishonest. Rather, Roth likely interpreted the question differently in a spoken interview as to whether he knew anyone who “passed” in real life, as Silk did in the novel.

The point of all this?

Truth via verification is not easy or obvious.

Even with multiple reliable sources: a direct transcript from an interview, or the words from the author himself, ferreting out the truth requires standards and deliberation.

As of this writing, Roth’s explanation about the Coleman Silk character has become the dominant one in the Wikipedia article, as it should be.

However, the erroneous speculation about Anatole Broyard was so prevalent and widely held in the years before Roth’s clarification, that it still has a significant mention in the article for historical purposes. There’s still debate how prominent this should be in the entry, given that it’s been flatly denied by Roth.

Lessons

Roth’s New Yorker article caused the article to be fixed, but getting such a prominent soapbox is not a solution that scales for everyone who has a problem with Wikipedia.

After a decade of Wikipedia’s existence as the chaotic encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” its ironic that its stringent standards for verifiability and moving slowly and deliberately with information now make those qualities a target for criticism.

Wikipedia has been portrayed as being too loose (“Anyone can edit Wikipedia? How can I trust it?”) and too strict (“Wikipedia doesn’t consider Roth a credible source about himself? How can I trust it?”). The fact is, on balance, this yin-yang relationship serves Wikipedia well the vast majority of the time by being responsive and thorough — by being quick by nature, yet slow by design.

It continues to be one of the most visited web properties in the world (fifth according to ComScore), by refining its policies to observe the reputation of living persons and to enforce accuracy in fast-changing articles. Most outsiders would be surprised to see how conscientious and pedantic Wikipedia’s editors are to get things right, despite a mercurial volunteer community in need of a decorum upgrade and the occasional standoff with award winning novelists.

 

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