Wikipedia Deems Philip Roth an Unreliable Source On a Philip Roth Novel

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Douglas Healey / AP

Novelist Philip Roth poses at his home, Sept. 5, 2005 in Warren, Conn.

He’s won a Pulitzer, the National Book Award twice and was awarded the 2011 Man Booker International prize, but apparently that still doesn’t qualify Philip Roth as a credible source — on his own work.

Recently the revered American author noticed an error on the Wikipedia page for his novel The Human Stain, which claimed the book’s protagonist, Coleman Silk, an African-American man who passes himself off as a white man for much of his life, was inspired by the real-life book critic and writer Anatole Broyard, who also happened to be a mixed race African-American but believed to be white. Roth, purporting this error was a “serious misstatement” went through the official channels on Wikipedia to correct the mistake. But he ran into a hurdle: he was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator” that even though he wrote the novel, Wikipedia would need a secondary source in order to fix the error. So Roth took to The New Yorker, penning a 2,600-word open letter to the online encyclopedia, in which he thoroughly corrected the mistake.

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Roth explained:

My novel “The Human Stain” was described in the entry as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” (The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia’s collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands.) 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 thirty years.

While there has been talk in the past that Roth’s protagonist Coleman Silk was based on Broyard, that speculation is, according to Roth, the “babble of literary gossip”. His letter goes on to detail at length just how his friend Tumin inspired the story and, more to the point, why it’s incorrect that Broyard was in anyway a source of inspiration. He sums up his letter saying, “to be inspired to write an entire book about a man’s life, you must have considerable interest in the man’s life, and, to put it candidly, though I particularly admired the story ‘What the Cystoscope Said’ when it appeared in 1954, and I told the author as much, over the years I otherwise had no particular interest in Anatole Broyard.”

And it seems that The New Yorker letter is sufficient as a secondary source for Wikipedia’s administrators: both the correction and the letter are now included in Wiki’s entry on The Human Stain.

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