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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Wikipedia Mindreads. Kinda.

Of course I know that Wikipedia is a place for quickie trivia browsing or a place to start looking. But this open letter to Wikipedia by Philip Roth about Wikipedia's inaccuracy in its article for The Human Stain reminded me hard. I've seen flags in Wikipedia articles about books and movies. These flags are alerts that the flagged content comes from a primary source (such as the author of the book) and therefore, must be backed up by secondary sources or deleted.

As a writer, I'm appalled that Wikipedia rejected Roth's assertion about the inspiration for his novel even after Roth identified himself. Who is Wikipedia to determine that the writer of a book is not a credible source about the book, especially about what was on that writer's mind when writing the book?

But I don't know that my emotional reaction is in the best interests of Wikipedia users. Lots of times artists create works that incidentally reflect values or ideas that the artist had no intentions of creating. Too often, we apply presentism to a work, such as that silly essay that went around about Susan in the Narnia Chronicles a year or two ago. Lewis made a powerful statement about Susan and choice in the Narnia Chronicles, but if you look at the work through today's eyes, Lewis treated her shabbily. The essay chose not to view Susan in the context of Narnia nor in the context of the time and culture the Chronicles of Narnia were written.

But in Roth's case, he's talking about what was in his head when he created the Coleman Silk character. It might be fair to say that there was another person near Roth's circles who passed for white and had a dalliance with a cleaning woman -- perhaps Anatole Broyard was in the back of Roth's head when he wrote.

That's simply an interesting thing to note, though. It's quite different to reject Roth's stated inspiration, not even permit mention of it, and then to state that Anatole Broyard was the inspiration.

Wikipedia made good eventually. There's now a two-sentence acknowledgement of Roth's inspiration, Melvin Tumin. There is also a two-paragraph analysis of Anatole Broyard. There is no mention of the evidence that Roth supplied in his open letter in that brief mention of Melvin Tumin. It's quite a shame because when presenting his evidence, Roth also provided an analysis of the novel that made me see it differently: one innocent error sets the entire story into motion and itself provides context for the tragedy.

As a writer, I feel a vehement indignation on Roth's behalf. Readers get to analyze and critique a work as they wish. If they see a parallel with Anatole Broyard, then they need to say so and open that discussion. But writers get to say what was in their heads when they wrote. It seems stupid to me that Wikipedia and its ilk should fancy itself so much that its collection of nearly anonymous contributors are deemed more credible about what Roth was thinking than Roth himself.

1 comment:

  1. "Who is Wikipedia to determine that the writer of a book is not a credible source about the book, especially about what was on that writer's mind when writing the book?"
    Is that the relevant distinction, or did they decide on the basis on their core policy on primary and secondary sources? When Roth sends a message directly to Wikipedia, that's not a publicly visible, third-party-reviewable source. Now that Roth has made his description of the inspirations for "Human Stain" *public*, via the New Yorker, editors (that is to say, anyone, including Roth) can use that publicly posted description as a source, to update the Wikipedia article and bring greater accuracy to it.
    By this precedent, if Donald Trump wants to chime in on the entry on Donald Trump, he can't get it changed by directly messaging Wikipedia; he'll have to post a publicly visible source, which anyone can see, review, and double-check, when editing the entry on Donald Trump.

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