Why Philip Roth had to explain himself in the New Yorker before his Wikipedia entry could be corrected

My latest Guardian column, "Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source," explains why it makes sense for Wikipedians to insist that Roth's claims about his novels be vetted by and published in the New Yorker before they can be included on Wikipedia:

Wikipedians not only have no way of deciding whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth, but even if they decided that he was, they have no way of knowing that the person claiming to be Philip Roth really is Philip Roth. And even if Wikipedians today decide that they believe that the PhilipRoth account belongs to the real Philip Roth, how will the Wikipdians 10 years from now know whether the editor who called himself PhilipRoth really was Philip Roth?

Wikipedia succeeds by "not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing". Specifically, Wikipedia does not verify the identity or credentials of any of its editors. This would be a transcendentally difficult task for a project that is open to any participant, because verifying the identity claims of random strangers sitting at distant keyboards is time-consuming and expensive. If each user has to be vetted and validated, it's not practical to admit anyone who wants to add a few words to a Wikipedia entry.

Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source


  1. If you are not an authority on yourself, how can you be an authority on others? For every way a person could lie about himself or impersonate someone else directly on Wikipedia, they could do the same to “reputable” secondary sources. Journalists are lied to and are the victim of jokes all the time.

    And that effort of vetting someone is a valuable commodity that Wikipedia is taking for free. Why did Roth have to use The New Yorker’s dime to fix an error in Wikipedia?

    1. It’s not really about whether Philip Roth is telling the truth, either. Suppose Philip Roth’s edit was allowed. Suppose that everyone knows with certainty that it was really Philip Roth, and that his statements are factually correct.

      What happens when someone else comes along and edits those changes away? Just erases them, and types something else? And nobody questions it. Maybe it’s even a good faith edit–a Philip Roth biographer somewhere writes authoritatively that PR’s inspiration for character X came from X’, even though PR himself says it came from Y. Well, that’s an established authority making a claim which we can cite and include. Not knowing who made the original change, the editor, in good faith, updates the entry to include this fact.

      What happens to the statement PR himself made? It’s gone.

      It didn’t exist anywhere but on Wikipedia. It can’t refer to itself, so it can’t override the (authoritative, but contrafactual) statements that the hypothetical biographer made.

      There has to be somewhere else Wikipedia can point to and say “it’s a fact that someone else said this”, just to prevent this kind of edit war where the truth and someone’s opinion are indistinguishable.

      …Also, he didn’t have to use the New Yorker at all. It was an interesting story the New Yorker was interested in running, so they did, so it’s disingenuous to say that this happened “on their dime” since they’re getting the benefit of interesting content. But more to the point, he could have made his statement almost anywhere else. On his own website, for example. In his blog. As a guest on a podcast. In an open letter to the president. Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not originally on Wikipedia.

      Since it’s so easy to correct, I don’t have a problem with wikipedia enforcing this rule, even to the inconvenience of the author himself.

    2. The question isn’t really whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth, but more about whether “PhilipRoth” is such an authority. There is no easy way to verify that “PhilipRoth” is Philip Roth, now or in the future, and so “PhilipRoth” must have an external source.

  2. In other words: Wikipedians not only have no way of deciding whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth

    “Authority” in literary studies generally derives from expertise, which can be demonstrated in the usual and accepted ways: publishing being the primary one. Roth wouldn’t be an authority on his own work so much as a unique witness to the same: no scholar or critic could give us anything like the window onto his intentions, thoughts about his work, compositional practice, etc., as he. Your points about vetting aside, that his letter was published in The New Yorker is as valuable for documentary-witnessing purposes as if he’d written the same words on toilet paper, or even in his own poo on the wall: Philip Roth on Philip Roth is Philip Roth on Philip Roth…. Obviously he knows a lot of valuable stuff that no one else knows, the sources for his works being a prime example of this.

    The Bradbury example doesn’t work, as you’re talking about interpretations of a work’s meaning. Texts are open for all to discuss concerning their meanings, their correct and incorrect readings, symbols, and the like; what’s less open for others to discuss is information that’s unique to the author, like intention. They’re two quite different things.

    Lovely that this happened to an author who’s written a lot about doubles, alter egos, and the like.

    1. And in the case of Vladimir Nabokov (speaking of writers fond of doubles, doppelgänger, etc.), the author may be just about the last person you’d want to trust to interpret the work!  (He knows, obviously, be he ain’t tellin’.)

  3. This is a somewhat different angle; but(at least during the period where I took my assorted undergrad lit classes) it was considered an entirely legitimate, even preferred, critical style to not treat the author’s statements about the text as authoritative. Potentially revealing, yes, and likely to be more useful than most other people’s for discerning the process by which the text was written; but not the last word on the interpretation of the text…

    For encyclopedia purposes, the whole issue can simply be dodged by a “the author’s stated motivation for X is Y” rather than simply “The motivation for X is Y”; but that is what honestly surprised me most about Roth’s little temper tantrum…

    Whether or not he likes it, I would have assumed that he would be familiar with the fact that lit crit adores interpretive creativity more than it enjoys treating authors as omniscient masters of their product.

  4. For the record, the New Yorker also pays actual fact checkers. I know it seems outdated in this age, but it’s true. And from what I’ve heard, just because Phillip Roth says he did such-and-such a thing in his article, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily going to just publish it without at least a little bit of verification.

    So getting your facts from the Phillip Roth’s article in the New Yorker is actually better than either trusting User:PhillipRoth or reading Phillip Roth’s blog.

  5. Was it not also the case that Roth was also very economical with the truth in his public letter? He misled us about what was said in the wikipedia article and the measures he’d taken to rectify it.

    If that’s true, then this whole thing is an even plainer illustration of why the author/subject is not a good source: because they might be full of it.

  6. Didn’t anyone notice that  Philip Roth’s letter was about Wikipedia the same way that “Citizen Kane” is a movie about a sled?

    “Having finished taking the roll, Mel queried the class about these two students whom he had never met. “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”—unfortunately, the very words that Coleman Silk, the protagonist of “The Human Stain,” asks of his classics class at Athena College in Massachusetts.”
    Notice some recursion here?

    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin

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