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Philip Roth Responds to Wikipedia

The author aims to set the record straight about ‘The Human Stain’

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Philip Roth in 1964(Sam Falk (NYT))

Earlier this week, the Times ran this gem of a headline–Philip Roth to Cooperate With New Biographerin reporting that biographer Blake Bailey has been chosen to write the biography of Roth’s life.

After an intense vetting process usually reserved for high-level national security gigs, Bailey, who penned acclaimed biographies of writers like Richard Yates and John Cheever, won over Roth during exchanges like this:

According to Mr. Bailey, the first thing Mr. Roth wanted to know was what qualified a gentile from Oklahoma to write his biography. “I pointed out that I’m not an aging bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage and I still managed to write a biography of John Cheever,” he said.

It seems Roth, pound-for-brainy-pound the world’s greatest living writer (commenters, this is your cue), is paying focus to his legacy. The project with Bailey is expected to take a minimum of eight years and Bailey will be granted unlimited access to Roth’s archives and presumably Roth’s friends will be encouraged to make themselves available for interviews.

Not coincidentally, today The New Yorker published an open letter from Roth to Wikipedia about his book The Human Stain, which landed Roth the PEN Faulker Award among many plaudits and spawned a lackluster film adaptation. The letter starts with this:

Dear Wikipedia,

I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all.

With a nod to Henry James, Roth goes on to explain the “germ” of his book The Human Stain with the aim of correcting a mistake in the Wikipedia entry about the book. The entry claims that the famous writer Anatole Broyard was the inspiration for Roth’s protagonist Coleman Silk. Amazingly, Roth’s attempt to refute the claim is denied by Wikipedia because (despite being the author!) he can’t offer the secondary sources that the site requires.

And so Roth goes, at great length, to clarify that the main character Coleman Silk originated with Mel Tumin, a professor who was embroiled in a strikingly similar controversy. The resulting book by Roth is a treatise on racism and identity in America.

Unfortunately, there is no specific perpetrator for Roth to call out (hence the “Dear Wikipedia” salutation) because Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia. Entries on the site are typically pieced together by some smart people as well as some amateur linkers, (often unqualified) editors, and literary gossipers, all of which make Wikipedia a frustrating and imperfect tool for people to use today (but, because of its ease, an indispensable one).

Roth’s letter is an exercise in memory, a triumph of nostalgia, and a lesson in novel-writing. The conflict on display here is between truth and what passes for fact when improperly reduced by many.

Since this very conflict was a major theme of great Roth’s book, this whole episode is cosmically fitting.

The Human Stain [Wikipedia]
An Open Letter to Wikipedia [TNY]
Philip Roth to Cooperate with New Biographer [NYT]

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jacob_arnon says:

“Roth’s letter is an exercise in memory, a triumph of
nostalgia, and a lesson in novel-writing. The conflict on display here is
between truth and what passes for fact when improperly reduced by many.”

Adam Chandler is trying too hard to be witty and ironic.

The letter isn’t an “exercise in memory.” Roth is stating
what he knows to be the facts in the case. The term “fact” is something “knowing”
writers who were indoctrinated in the academies after the 1970’s can’t seem to
abide. To them there are no “facts” only “interpretation of facts.”

Roth is also wise to try and find a biographer who cares
about facts as much as about interpretation of those facts. Anyone can write a
biography but an author need not help someone who cares more about making a
name for himself/herself than about the subject in question.

The biography written about his friend Saul Bellow is a cautionary
tale” “Bellow: A Biography by James Atlas.”
That biographer was more interested in building a psychoanalytic case
against Saul Bellow than in explaining how the writer went about composing his

Many of Atlas’ conclusions were way off the mark as the
recent publication of Bellow’s letters made clear.

I hope Mr. Roth has better luck with his biographer.

Roth should have quoted Virginia Woolf: “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

jacob_arnon says:

Thank you for your explanation Mr. Tumin.

It’s not unusual for college students to skip classes and then blame the Professor for their absence. (I know this from experience.) Almost everything about your father’s case is ironic, except the pain a charge of “racism” must have caused a man who spent most of his life fighting racism.

At least his experience resulted in the creation of a great American novel.


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Philip Roth Responds to Wikipedia

The author aims to set the record straight about ‘The Human Stain’

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