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Remember the Time Philip Roth Got Mad at Wikipedia?

Philip Roth. Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

Philip Roth — a literary titan. Who can forget this famous American novelist, who died this week at age 85? As we all know, “Roth’s fiction, regularly set in his birthplace of Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, for its ‘supple, ingenious style’ and for its provocative explorations of American identity.[1]”

Okay, I have a confession: I barely wrote that first paragraph. I just copy-pasted it from Wikipedia, a stunning repository of human knowledge, and Philip Roth’s number-one enemy.

Back in 2012, Roth got into a very funny and very stupid public dispute with Wikipedia that exposed some oddities in the site’s research process that ended with Roth writing a lengthy essay in The New Yorker, entitled “An Open Letter to 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.

The short version is that the entry for Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain described the work as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard,” a literary figure who “passed” as white despite being black. Roth, who would probably know better than anyone what inspired his own work, said that this was wrong and tried to have the entry altered. Wikipedia’s editors rejected the request, because information provided by Wikipedia can’t be based on original research (and also, it’s against the rules to edit a Wikipedia entry about one’s self).

That seems absurd on its face, but it’s also an example of Wikipedia’s policies preventing misinformation and abuse. As USC professor Andrew Lih explained at the time, Wikipedia is often a tertiary source, not a secondary source — it requires the facts stated to have been verified elsewhere. The Broyard-inspiration theory came about not because of sloppy editing, or one editor’s theory, but because at least 15 well-regarded sources had put it forward — and Roth had never addressed the matter.

But you can’t just change a Wikipedia entry because you know better — even if you are the subject of the Wikipedia article. In order that it can be properly cited in a way that isn’t “because I said so,” the fact has to appear in a tangible, verifiable form elsewhere — like, say, an article on The New Yorker’s website. The Wikipedia article for The Human Stain now includes the following paragraph:

Roth described in a 2012 piece 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 thirty 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.[3]

Later, under a section about Broyard, this sentence appears:

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.[15][3]

Footnote [3] leads to a citation: Roth’s New Yorker piece. Thus ended one of the weirdest literary feuds of the 21st century.

Remember the Time Philip Roth Got Mad at Wikipedia?