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Friday, 07 August 2020 08:44

Wikipedia did not accept author's word as truth about his own work

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Wikipedia did not accept author's word as truth about his own work Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Globally renowned author Philip Roth, him of Portnoy's Complaint fame, who passed away two years ago, faced an unusual situation eight years ago, in which Wikipedia is refused to correct a mistake in an entry discussing his novel The Human Stain despite his making a request for a correction. The people behind the Internet encyclopedia apparently wanted a secondary source to back up Roth's claims that there was a mistake.

This, it must be repeated, was in an entry about a novel that Roth himself wrote. The letter sent by Roth dates back to September 2012 but deserves publicity even at this late stage because of how ridiculous the stance of the people behind Wikipedia is. The fact that it is still relevant is shown by the fact that The New Yorker tweeted out a link to Roth's letter on Thursday!

Roth's letter, published by The New Yorker on 6 September 2012, pointed out that there was what he described as a serious misstatement about his novel that he wanted 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," Roth said.

But, he went on, when he petitioned Wikipedia through an official interlocutor to delete the misstatement in question, he "was told by the 'English Wikipedia Administrator' — in a letter dated 25 August [2012] 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.”

Yes, a renowned author sought a correction in an entry about his own novel and was told that it could only be done if a secondary source backed up the author's claim!

Roth's objection was to this: "My novel The Human Stain was described in the entry as 'allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard'." He added that by the time he wrote the letter, "the precise language had been changed by the collaborative editing process that takes place on Wikipedia 'but this falsity still stands'."

He wrote: "This alleged allegation is in no way substantiated by fact. 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 30 years."

He went into intricate detail to explain how Broyard could not be the inspiration behind his novel and why Tumin was. Excruciating detail, to be more exact, which you, gentle reader, can read here. And. believe me, it is well worth the time.

Looking at the same entry today, a kind of wishy-washy correction has been made. Referring to Roth's 2012 letter, Wikipedia notes: "Roth described in a 2012 piece [the letter] for The New Yorker how his novel was inspired by an event in the life of his friend Melvin Tumin, a 'professor of sociology at Princeton for some 30 years'. Tumin was subject to a 'witch hunt', but was ultimately found blameless in a matter involving use of allegedly racial language concerning two African-American students."

Having gone through the history of all the edits, it is impossible to determine exactly when some indication of Roth being correct was added.

It's symptomatic of the inability to admit one is wrong, so much a hallmark of our times, that even after all these years Wikipedia still retains the claim about Broyard: "In the reviews of the book in both the daily and the Sunday New York Times in 2000, Kakutani and Lorrie Moore suggested that the central character of Coleman Silk might have been inspired by Anatole Broyard, a well-known New York literary editor of the Times," the Wikipedia entry states.

"Other writers in the academic and mainstream press made the same suggestion. After Broyard's death in 1990, it had been revealed that he racially passed (sic) during his many years employed as a critic at The New York Times. He was of Louisiana Creole ancestry.

"However, Roth himself has stated that he had not known of Broyard's ancestry when he started writing the book and only learned of it months later. In Roth's words, written in An Open Letter to Wikipedia and published by the New Yorker, 'Neither Broyard nor anyone associated with Broyard had anything to do with my imagining anything in The Human Stain'. As stated above, Roth maintains that Coleman Silk was inspired 'by an unhappy event in the life of [Roth's] late friend Melvin Tumin'."

Judging by the history of changes to the Wikipedia entry, the first change was made six days after Roth's letter, on 12 September. But what is curious is that, after at least 100 more changes, the entry still does not definitely state that Roth was right and the entry was wrong, only that "Roth described Tumin as being his model for the central character in his novel".

Wikipedia's stubbornness in refusing to admit a mistake appears to be based on the fact that claims about Broyard being the inspiration for Roth have more references than the truth about Tumin. In other words, if one man tells the truth and 75 others say it's not so, then the side with more numbers wins.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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