Philip Roth Responds to Wikipedia
The author aims to set the record straight about ‘The Human Stain’
Earlier this week, the Times ran this gem of a headline–Philip Roth to Cooperate With New Biographer–in 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:
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.
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.