Home / General / “Wikipedia informed Roth that it would require ‘secondary sources’ to verify his assertion that his novel was not inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard.”

“Wikipedia informed Roth that it would require ‘secondary sources’ to verify his assertion that his novel was not inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard.”


That seemingly innocuous statement is from the “Inspiration” subsection of the Wikipedia entry on Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. I write “seemingly innocuous” because it points to a problem central to both Wikipedia’s operating ethos and literary analysis. Speaking to the latter first: this isn’t a case about what a text means or what its author intended it to mean so we can avoid the hairier arguments about whether meaning resides within a text or is communicated through it. This argument is about source material. Where something came from instead of what and how it means. According to a Wikipedia-approved secondary source, Michiko Kakutani, The Human Stain

is the story of a black man who decided to pass himself off as white. This premise seems to have been inspired by the life story of Anatole Broyard—a critic for The New York Times who died in 1990—at least as recounted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his 1997 book 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Man.

Kakutani’s review meets all Wikipedia’s criteria for a “reliable source.” Except it isn’t. She said the “premise seems to have been inspired by the life story of Anatole Broyard,” which indicates that she’s no more familiar with the source material than anyone else. Charles Taylor’s review of the novel at Salon constituted the other “secondary source” for the Broyard connection and made its way into the Wikipedia entry thus:

Taylor argues that Roth had to have been at least partly inspired by the case of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who, like the protagonist of The Human Stain, was a man identified as Creole who spent his entire professional life more-or-less as white.

But as with Kakutani, Taylor’s evidence—mistakenly identified in the Wikipedia entry as an argument—is also pure supposition:

There’s no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years.

Given the “strength” of the “evidence” provided by these secondary sources, there’s no need to perform a detailed literary analysis to determine that the connection to Broyard didn’t warrant inclusion in the Wikipedia entry. Since no one else would the task fell to Roth’s biographer:

Or at least someone claiming to be his biographer. An editor demand proof and re-inserted the Broyard bit:

At which point Roth’s alleged and now annoyed biographer re-re-deleted the Broyant bit:

Later that afternoon a different editor re-re-inserted the Broyant bit and added a little more on it:

This other editor, Parkwells, then took it upon him- or herself to further substantiate the idea that Roth based his novel on Broyard:

So despite Roth’s purported desire that there be less about Broyard in the entry, Parkwells is determined that there be more. Remember Kakutani’s weak proposition about what the premise of the novel “seems” to be? Here’s how Parkwells translates her “seems”:

Kakutani’s now been “struck,” as if with great force, by the parallels between Roth’s novel and Broyard’s life. But Parkwells’ not finished yet:

He or she would continue to bulwark this connection because Wikipedia editors are notoriously protective of and deferential to their secondary sources. It’s not enough for Roth’s biographer to insist that the connection is spurious. It’s not as if Roth himself could start a blog or open a Twitter account or contact Wikipedia and have Parkwells’ revisions removed because Wikipedia policy doesn’t consider self-publications to be reputable secondary sources:

Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason self-published media—whether books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, personal pages on social networking sites, Internet forum postings, or tweets—are largely not acceptable. This includes any website whose content is largely user-generated, including the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Cracked.com, CBDB.com, collaboratively created websites such as wikis, and so forth, with the exception of material on such sites that is labeled as originating from credentialed members of the sites’ editorial staff, rather than users.

So Roth did what anyone would do in such a situation: he transformed himself into a “secondary source” by writing an “Open Letter to Wikipedia” in The New Yorker:

Dear 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.

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th 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.”

Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.

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.

Now that’s he’s written this letter he’s become a reputable secondary source about himself. So concludes l’affair du ou de la Parkwells. Or does it? Outside all of the usual issues with its editorial politics, Roth’s clever circumvention of Wikipedia’s citation policies points to a fundamental weakness in them. His “Open Letter” is no differ in substance from the self-published media Wikipedia bans: it’s essentially a personal website, blog post or Internet forum posting that his stature allows him to publish in The New Yorker. It’s self-publication in all but form and that’s a problem: he could be lying. The verification process instituted to avoid having people with Wikipedia entries lying about themselves has been thwarted by a publisher deferring to a powerful author. What amused me about the whole affair—beside the fact that Roth brooded from August 20th until September 7th about lines in a Wikipedia entry—is that a solution that didn’t require the spirit of Wikipedia’s editorial policy had been available the entire time: Roth’s biographer, Blake Baily, could’ve identified himself by name and indicated that he could independently verify both the tenuousness of Roth’s relations with Broyard and the depth of his friendship with Melvin Tumin. All he had to do was write an on-the-fly-excerpt from Roth’s forthcoming biography on any of a million reputable literary sites that would’ve jumped at the chance to publish it. At that point the opinions Roth aired in his “Open Letter” would ascend into fact. Why? Because someone else corroborated them.

Meaning we’re not significantly better off than when we started. Why am I going on at such length about this? Because I fancy myself an historicist and this affair addresses an issue near and dear to my heart. If I were to investigate the cultural and historical context of The Human Stain, a novel whose narrative present is the late 1990s, my researches would have turned up information about the prominent New York Times critic Anatole Broyard and the controversy surrounding his death. I would have considered the 1996 revelation that Broyard had spent his life passing to be a significant part of the novel’s cultural and historical context because it is. The Human Stain was published in an environment in which its audience, including Kakutani and Taylor, were primed to understand it as belonging to larger interest in the politics of passing at the end of the 20th Century and they were right to do so. I would have been too. Philip Roth is well within his right to identify his inspiration with all the specificity he desires, but he doesn’t have the right to alter future perceptions of his cultural and historical moment by insisting that he somehow lived outside it. It doesn’t matter when he learned about Broyard: he was still living and writing in a moment that was informed by the disclosure.

Roth’s letter is an attempt to deny that the world in which he lives defines him. That also happens to be the central theme in The Human Stain. How Roth fails to see the irony I don’t know. The point is that Roth was wrong to circumvent Wikipedia’s sensible editorial policy, but I have a feeling that’s not how this affair’s going to play out in a literary media ever eager to put upstarts like Wikipedia in their place.

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  • Vance Maverick

    And even if Roth literally knew nothing about Broyard, the book is quite explicitly about the real-world cultural field in which the Broyard story resonates. Knowing where Roth took his immediate inspiration is interesting but tangential — a little like knowing that the quartets Eliot had been listening to when he chose that title were not Beethoven’s.

    • SEK

      This post takes a while to get going — I need to establish Roth’s annoyance to justify his letter in The New Yorker — but that’s where I come out in the end as well. I prefer my authors immerse themselves in history rather than situate themselves above it.

      • Vance Maverick

        Yeah, I know I was restating your conclusion. Reading the first part of your post, I felt a kind of anger on Roth’s behalf, but realized (was persuaded) that that didn’t make sense. Another way to say it: if the resemblance of Broyard’s story to Roth’s fiction is an irrelevant coincidence, then an engaged fictional practice like Roth’s is meaningless.

    • firefall

      And that might even be relevant if you’re talking about the times, not specifically referring to the book. But Roth obviously feels this is a slight to his powers of imagination (which I’d agree with) and wants that eliminated. He’s not even remotely attempted to stand above history, and SEK’s reading of his actions in that fashion is bizarre even for the erratic muse of LGM.

      • SEK

        There’s nothing bizarre about a literary critic being annoyed by an author trying to place himself above and outside of his cultural and historical moment. Before the ’60s, after all, the job of the literary critic was to demonstrate how sublimely an author did so. That’s what New Criticism did: elevate poems and poets above the dirty world of historical contingency. It’s only relatively recently that history’s been introduced back into literary theory, so when someone of Roth’s stature goes to extreme lengths to demonstrate that his novel is deaf and blind to its cultural and historical moment, I’m bound to get a little ornery.

        • Increase Mather

          What makes you think Broyard’s story is big enough to define a cultural and historical moment? That’s what I don’t get.

          • SEK

            A cultural critic for the Times in the New England literary scene is plenty notable to the likes of Roth. And I’m not saying that it defined that moment, only that it was such a part of it that two prominent reviewers each assumed it as a reference.

            • JRoth

              I’m kind of sympathetic to your argument, except that it seems to insist on an unrealistic uniformity of cultural reference. For millions of North Americans, 2012 will always be the Summer of “Call Me Maybe” – even NPR did a couple stories on it. Yet there are – literally – tens of millions of North Americans who have never heard more than a few seconds of that song (millions have never heard it at all). To insist that anyone writing about the summer of ’12 must – if critics see in the writing echoes of the song – have been intentionally invoking it is to deny not only authorial authority (heh), but any concept of authority at all.

              Thousands of moronsamateurs have written analyses of Dylan lyrics that are utterly groundless. Would you argue that any of them who have a tenuous – “plenty notable” – connection to Dylan must, by definition, be more authoritative than whatever he might say? If Peter, Paul, or Mary say that one of his songs means something, is that more significant than whatever Dylan says, because somehow they were there but he wasn’t?

              It just seems a bizarre standard – somebody else thought X was important, ergo the author must have as well. Please list all the ways that Kakutani and Roth inhabit the same world. “Uh, they both read a lot, and they, along with 100 million others, live in a relatively small geographic area.” OK, SEK.

        • But he’s not doing that

          He’s very explicitly not doing that

          My protagonist, the academic Coleman Silk, and the real writer Anatole Broyard first passed themselves off as white men in the years before the civil-rights movement began to change the nature of being black in America. Those who chose to pass (this word, by the way, doesn’t appear in “The Human Stain”) imagined that they would not have to share in the deprivations, humiliations, insults, injuries, and injustices that would be more than likely to come their way should they leave their identities exactly as they’d found them. During the first half of the twentieth century, there wasn’t just Anatole Broyard alone—there were thousands, probably tens of thousands, of light-skinned men and women who decided to escape the rigors of institutionalized segregation and the ugliness of Jim Crow by burying for good their original black lives.

          He himself makes your point about societal/historical contingency, about these issues and tensions being in the cultural air

          His point is just saying “this particular dude didn’t serve as the immediate basis for the details in my story, some dude from Princeton did, because I knew about and consciously used the stories of the Princeton dude and not this other cat”

          The fact that there are multiple examples from that era which can serve as the basis for the general narrative mechanism in the book bolsters your general point about societal/historic contingency

          But there’s a more specific point about the details of the narrative and the real-world experiences Roth based them on, one that is much more about Roth’s conscious decision-making process than a general cultural milieu, and which doesn’t have anything to do with anyone except for Mel Tumin.

          • rea

            With all respect, SEK is conflating two distinct questions: (1) Was the character based on this particular guy? and (2)Was the character shaped by the cultural and historical moment that produced people like this particular guy?

            • Right. He’s also claiming that no matter the answer to 1) Roth is in the wrong by answering 2) in the negative. Except he pretty explicitly doesn’t.

            • SEK

              (1) Was the character based on this particular guy? and (2)Was the character shaped by the cultural and historical moment that produced people like this particular guy?

              I don’t think I’m conflating those two questions so much as saying the second necessarily shapes the first. You can’t write a point outside of history. And yet, after talking about the hypothetical existence of people like Broyard early in the letter, he writes this:

              I had no idea what it was like for Anatole Broyard to flee from his blackness because I knew nothing about Anatole Broyard’s blackness, or, for that matter, his whiteness. But I knew everything about Coleman Silk because I had invented him from scratch.

              This is what annoys critics like myself, the notion that authors invent characters “from scratch.” That’s the blustering ego of the artist, and it simply isn’t true. A writer whose work is so much about a particular American experience should know that.

  • arguingwithsignposts

    I am amazed at this molehill! It is so fecking HUGE!

    Why couldn’t Roth just give an interview to a magazine or newspaper and mention in passing that his novel was inspired by whomever?

    Or is this one of those “famous people being huge douchebags” instances?

    • Warren Terra

      He’s not being a huge douchebag, not really – he’s not complaining that parallels have been drawn with the late Mr. Broyard, he’s saying that specific allegations that were made about what Roth was thinking of when he wrote the book are nor accurate. Getting upset when someone repeatedly insists you did or thought something that you emphatically know you did not is completely normal and understandable. It is not douchebaggery – even though using one’s power to appear in the pages of The New Yorker, even if it is to tell a somewhat funny tale, does inevitably risk the appearance of douchebagism.

    • Increase Mather

      How is Roth being a douchebag? As the next post says, he probably thinks it is a slight on Tumin. Or maybe he just cares about the truth.

      Why couldn’t the Wikioedia page simple have said that others noted the similarities with Broyard’s life, but Roth has denied that was his conscious inspiration?

      • Hob

        That would make sense and would be totally consistent with WP policy as I understand it… and I wouldn’t be surprised if the page eventually settles into some variation on that. But WP policy from one edit to the next is interpreted by lots of different people, many of whom have strange readings that they’ll defend to the death.

  • Bill Murray

    It looks to me like people are trying to deny Melvin Tumin’s life and give it’s essence to Broyard.

    But then I don’t really get why Wikipedia couldn’t say that Roth claims the book was based on Tumin and similar life stories are known for Boyard and I’m sure many others. OTOH I’m jes’ a simple country engineer what weren’t no part of the audience for The Human Stain.

  • Greg

    Writers are certainly authorities on their own inspirations, but they’re too unreliable to be regarded as sole authorities. Who’s to say how accurate his memory is regarding when he learned about Broyard? And even if he only learned about it when he was well into the writing of his novel, other people learned about it sooner, and many of them could have interacted with him and been affected by the knowledge in a way to pass that effect onto him.

    • SEK

      And even if he only learned about it when he was well into the writing of his novel, other people learned about it sooner, and many of them could have interacted with him and been affected by the knowledge in a way to pass that effect onto him.

      Bingo. The cultural conversation was, as historicists like to say, “in the air,” so he was breathing it in.

      • Bill Murray

        or maybe he was soaking in it. OTOH I would not presume to know anything about what was Roth was breathing as I was not in wherever he was living at that time.

        • synykyl

          Ah! But you probably do know someone who was and were influenced by them. Therefore. you do know what Roth was breathing no matter how sure you are that you do not know it ;-)

      • Hogan

        The cultural conversation was, as historicists like to say, “in the air,”

        Do historicists like to say that? It sounds to me like a handwave for when a plausible theory lacks specific evidence.

        • SEK

          We do, but most of us aren’t saying that because they want to float evidence-lean plausible theories: we’re more interested in deducing the precise chemical composition of the air and figuring out where all its constituent parts originated.

      • JRoth

        So Cokie’s Law is now the critical standard?

        It just seems insane to insist on “X influenced Author Y” when your “evidence” is tendentious correlation equals causation stuff. Prove that Y was involved with X or step back to “X resonates with what Author Y wrote” and leave it at that.

        This kind of evidence doesn’t hold up in any other form of argument, but current literary theory despises authorial intent, so we get to shove whatever facts we want to into the mix.

        “Believe” by Cher was the biggest hit of 1999; Roth can deny it all he wants, but we all know that Cher’s anthem of empowerment suffused his writing. Or is there a rule that only overarching themes can be subjected to this kind of “analysis”?

    • John

      Note that Roth’s whole open letter is a red herring. Roth points out various issues having nothing to do with “passing” in which his character, Silk, is not based on Broyard. But surely the whole point of the comparison was the issue of passing! That the incident of using “spooks” was based on someone who was not Broyard, or that various other features of the novel are fictional, which is what Roth spends most of his time saying, really doesn’t go to the question of whether the issue of passing, in particular, was inspired by Broyard’s story.

      • Medrawt

        Except Roth claims that he was unaware of the truth about Broyard’s ancestry at the time he began writing and conceived of the book, and also was aware of speculation that Tumin had been passing. You could assume that Roth is just lying, but I don’t see why you would. Indeed, Roth’s letter makes sense given my impression of the book when I read it – the fact that Coleman Silk is passing as white is for Roth a cruel irony, but not the most important thing about the story.

        I would certainly agree that Roth is being a little more prickly than warranted here, but I would expect nothing less. That the moment of the book’s publication was a moment in which the literary world was thinking about Broyard is surely a relevant fact that colored the reception of the book, and pretending Kakutani et al. didn’t write what they wrote is silly. But he’s equally justified in saying “hey, that may be so, but that wasn’t what I was doing, because I didn’t have that knowledge at the time.”

        In any case, I’m inclined to be dubious about Wikipedia’s policies on this sort of thing. I have in mind the curious case of Kyle Gann, who was for many years a music critic (and composer) at the Village Voice writing about the Downtown classical music scene, and one of if not the only regular chronicler of that period, and found himself stymied by attempts to correct articles on minimalism and composers he covered, since quoting himself was a conflict of interest and nobody else had written anything he could cite.

        • John

          In terms of Roth’s piece, it does feel to me

          There are certainly some stupid Wikipedia policies, and some very stupid Wikipedia editors who enforce those policies in the stupidest and least flexible way they can.

          At the same time, I think those who want to change the policies should really think about the basis for those policies, and what you’d replace them with that would work as well. For every Kyle Gann there’s twenty crackpots who want their own nonsense included in Wikipedia. The policies that always get Wikipedia this kind of unwelcome media attention are the same policies that keep out absurd crackpottery.

          Furthermore, usually in situations like the ones you describe, the problem isn’t really Wikipedia policy. I’m pretty sure that there’s not actually a rule against using your own scholarly publications as sources in Wikipedia articles, especially if you’re an actual expert. The problem in these kind of cases is typically over-zealous and too ignorant wikipedia editors, combined, in most cases, with an expert who can’t really be bothered to engage with Wikipedia on its own terms – to get into the muck of talk page discussions. Wikipedia is its own community as much as it’s an encyclopedia, and it’s not really surprising that people who won’t learn the rules of that community aren’t that effective at changing it. This can have unfortunate results, of course, but it’s hard to see a solution.

          • Medrawt

            Well, I’m pretty sure what I want Wikipedia to be isn’t what Wikipedia wants itself to be. (i.e., when the Wikipedia community deletes entries for lack of relevance, I think they’re missing what’s [a] so charming about Wikipedia [b] one of the things that makes it valuable; someone wants episode summaries for every half hour of television that aired, ever, and as long as someone else is willing to write them, why shouldn’t they be in the obvious place?), and I don’t put a lot of weight or concern into the validity of the type of Wikipedia entry that’s talking about, say, the reception of a novel. (I’m more likely, and this may be very misguided on my part, to take Wikipedia explanations of scientific phenomena and random statistical facts [what’s the population of Tehran?] at face value.)

            But I really don’t have a problem with being more overt in letting people who are clearly experts in a given field have more weight, whether or not they’re engaged with the Wikipedia Community. There’s potential for abuse and bias, but there is in any system, and if someone else cares it’ll eventually get caught out. I imagine there wouldn’t be as much abuse as there is silliness now. In the end, no resource is truly objective and infallible, and you’ve gotta accept that; even dictionaries and encyclopedias get reviewed and criticized.

            I also think Roth shouldn’t get to wipe the record of what other people said about his book, but he should get to go on the record about what was in his mind. I guess this is the limit of where I go with SEK’s historicism – Roth really doesn’t get to define the context of the world in which he wrote his book, but I reject the idea that we should discount what Roth has to say about his own state of mind. No one is a perfect reporter of their own mental process, but no one else is going to be a better reporter, and unless we have a reason to think Roth is being disengenuous, he should get to say what he actually thinks he was thinking about.

            • John

              There’s a rather vigorous debate within the Wikipedia community about the appropriateness of deleting articles, and about the extent to which experts should be treated with deference. I think I’d be on the same side as you in both of those debates. There’s other issues where I think Wikipedia’s policies deeply misguided.

              At the same time, I don’t see how any progress can be made on any of these issues by making a few high-handed attempts to commandeer an article and then, after being prevented from doing so, writing a petulant article about your experiences in some other publication. If you want to change the way Wikipedia does things, the only effective way to do that is from within. If you want to get something included within a Wikipedia article despite opposition, the way to do that is to patiently make your case on the talk page.

              • MikeJ

                If you want to change the way Wikipedia does things, the only effective way to do that is from within.

                This is quite obviously untrue. You can also get changes by publishing in the New Yorker.

                • John

                  You can get changes to individual articles. You can’t get systemic change.

  • John

    Notice that the Wikipedia talk page has already become a center of triumphalism for Wikipedia editors who are using the incident as an argument against the content policies in question. The discussion is well worth reading if one is interested in how Wikipedia works.

    I think a big point here is that the article did not at any point say that the book was based on Broyard. It said that many critics had suggested that it was based on Broyard, which is completely accurate. One can certainly quibble with the wording, but this is nothing like the Siegenthaler incident, where for several months the Wikipedia article said that he was involved in RFK’s assassination. Roth’s argument isn’t with Wikipedia, it’s with Kakutani and Taylor and whoever else originally made the Broyard claim.

  • Roger McCarthy

    But now Roth has got his side of the argument published does that not count as the required ‘secondary’ source he is told is required.

    As long as there is a section at the end on the Broyard controversy that states his view I really can’t see the problem here.

    • SEK

      But now Roth has got his side of the argument published does that not count as the required ‘secondary’ source he is told is required.

      It does, but I’m not sure it should. I sort of drop that line of argument, but powerful people shouldn’t be able to “correct” the historical record by abusing their power.

      • rea

        As I understand the rules, Wikipedia allows citation of autobiographical material that has been professionally published. We can reasonably rely on the New Yorker not to let an imposter post a letter under Roth’s name, and it’s independently verifiable that such a letter exists.

      • LeeEsq

        In the grand or even not so grand scheme of things, I’d hardly call Roth powerful. He can’t really effect the life of people the way a politician or business person can. As a very famous author, he does have certain cultural powers but face it, he is a literary author in the age of genre fiction. Most people in the United States probably have no idea who Phillip Roth is or what the controversy is. Getting an open letter published in a major magazine and online is something most people can’t do but I’d be more likely to call Roth’s actions in this case a last ditch effort to get his say than an abuse of power.

        • MPAVictoria

          ” but I’d be more likely to call Roth’s actions in this case a last ditch effort to get his say than an abuse of power.”


      • JRoth

        If Wikipedia ever mischaracterizes me or my work, I’d like to think that it would be possible, somehow, for it to be corrected. Are you arguing that it shouldn’t, or that there needs to be a non-powerful-people angle of correction? I’m down with that, but nothing you’ve written gives me confidence that this is what you favor.

  • Lige

    From the letter it actually seems like Roth had a pretty good acquaintance level relationship with Broyard so the theories seem less far fetched to me after reading it. I get the desire to own ones creations but it seems like a lot of effort go through. It is interesting about the Thumin case – I never really bought the spook event in the book. I couldn’t imagine anyone using that word in American spoken English to describe a ghost.

    • Medrawt

      Well, “niggardly” isn’t all that common a word either.

    • rea

      I’ve heard references in spoken English to “spooks” many a time. And, evidently, you’ve never watched “Scooby Doo” :(

      • Hogan

        Or, if you’re really freakin old, this.

    • Informant

      Conversely, I’d never heard the word “spook” used as a racial slur until I was in college, and even that was on a television show. (I figured that it must have some racist meaning from the characters’ reactions, but I still had to go look it up to be sure because it didn’t make sense to me.) I’ve never heard it used in that sense in real life, and if someone says, “spooks,” my immediate thought would be of scaring horses, followed by ghosts of the Scooby Doo variety.

    • Visitor

      Hmmm… We need even more engineers reading, here!

      for me, the commonest usages of “spook” are, in order of frequency

      1. spy or employee of an intelligence agency (NSA etc)
      2. ghost

      Didn’t know about the slur connotation before.

  • jeer9

    Roth is trying to control the narrative about how his novel was inspired and constructed, and believes his version of events is privileged. Given the postmodern literary climate, it does seem a bit silly for him to claim this Archimedean point, though I hardly think the corollary of this viewpoint is that he doesn’t have the right to alter future perceptions of his cultural and historical moment by insisting that he somehow lived outside it. There is no rule or law which says that artists may not think of themselves as gods (in fact, it’s more often just the opposite) and such self-“right”eousness, despite its metaphysical attractiveness, will ultimately need to be weighed with numerous other cultural factors and voices. In any case, the source of a work seems much less important than its relative merit (unless of course the authorship of said work is at stake or its social/historical context is the focus).

    • Hogan

      Roth is trying to control the narrative about how his novel was inspired and constructed, and believes his version of events is privileged.

      Whereas Wikipedia thinks the version of two book reviewers is privileged. Maybe they’re both wrong.

      • JRoth

        Kakutani is God. All other POVs are merely subjective.

        Would anyone here approve of Kakutani’s execrable discussion of “Earth in the Balance” should be privileged? If WP starts to cite it as definitive, would we cry that Gore was using his “power” if he tried to get her slurs corrected? Or would we, sanely, say that lots of cultural critics write all sorts of crap, and it shouldn’t be taken as gospel?

  • Anonymous

    I’m a left-wing fan of sites like this. But I’ve always been struck by how second-rate your writers are. You really aren’t particularly bright or perceptive. You’re all like some guy we all met in college who thinks he’s got insights simply by virtue of having a brain. This post sealed the deal — you’re dumbs–ts.

    • befuggled

      So says someone who can’t spell “dumbshits.”

      • Bill Murray

        I think it’s the Jen-Bob version of a letter to Penthouse

    • sparks

      If we beg you to stay, will you finally leave?

      (I caught a whiff on something malodorous at “I’m a left-wing fan” – who writes like that?)

      • firefall

        left fan wings :)

    • Warren Terra

      OK, so you’re a fan of sites like this, except that they are poorly written and offer you no cleverness and no perceptive insights. You will perhaps pardon me if your affection is less than apparent. Oh, and you can’t be bothered to adopt a pseudonym. You’re just chock full of credibility.

  • This is a pretty fucking hard line on the Myth of Authorial Intent.

    I agree that some kinds of analysis allow and even demand that Roth’s assertions about his own work should be viewed as both biased and perhaps (deliberately or otherwise) false.

    However, shouldn’t the article reflect all of the available facts and not depend on the “feeling” of one literary critic?

    It would be fair to say that “some feel that [citation] Roth’s book was inspired by [citation] due to the parallelisms evident…but Mr Roth disputes this (and maybe: claims that his book instead took inspiration from…”

    But leaving his point of view – while it is still available and we can ask him, a luxury we don’t have with e.g. Beethoven – out entirely* seems foolish.

    While I am in favor of some kinds of analysis** that take into account the cultural contexts of the time, they often lead to entirely subjective and personal readings of texts that sometimes border on the absurd.

    (I mostly call these “analyses” “interpretations” [in music]).)

    And the “in the air-ness” is a concept with which I’m largely friendly, although I would never, ever claim to know the “inspiration” of a work; I’d rather point out e.g. structural similarities with other works at the time, psychological or scientific theories that mirror etc. etc. than try to claim what the author was feeling or had in mind.

    However, if one essay by a literary critic is enough to warrant a “trusted reference” status by Wikipedia – and it seems like there is a feeling of privilege here drastically less warranted than that of an author over his own work – and it is to be included in the article, it should be under a heading like “interpretations” or “criticism” or something.

    That way any crackpot postmodernist hack literary critic [not all of them; but there are plenty] can have his “interpretation” of the author’s “inspiration” published in Wikipedia as well.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love me some wacky-ass close readings. But they’re no more (and possibly less) valid than the author’s own say-so, even if the latter should be accompanied by a caveat rather than omitted.

    *[sorry for the split infinitive]

    ** I was trained in music analysis, but the same streams of postmodern literary criticism apply, for better or for worse.

    See also: McCleary, Susan (UCLA) for wacky-ass close readings of classical music (grounded in Marxist feminism) that are fun and shocking, and really more about what was “in the air” when she wrote them than the music she’s analyzing [read: interpreting].

  • Jeffrey Kramer

    I can’t see getting from what Roth said (that the particular history of Broyard did not inspire his novel) to SEK’s characterization of it (an attempt “to alter future perceptions of his cultural and historical moment by insisting that he somehow lived outside it”) without a very powerful Engorgio spell. The same spell directed back at SEK might well transfigure his comment into “an attempt to reduce all personal, lived experience to irrelevance,” or something equally silly.

    • Visitor

      Yeah, especially when Roth reminds us that (forgive a little engorgio on my own part here) folks who are so dadburned insistent that *anything* that didn’t fit Tumin *must* be about AB is like pretending the kajillion other “passing” professors, etc., did not exist.

  • etv13

    Having started at your headline, I was astonished to get to your conclusion and find that you thought the Wikipedia people were right and Roth was wrong. Seriously, a secondary source is more acceptable on the question of Roth’s intentions than Roth himself? Sure, people don’t necessarily fully understand their own motives and intentions. Still, Roth’s statement that “I was inspired by Mr. X” strikes me as being at least as worthy of consideration as Kakutani’s assertion that his protagonist “seems to be inpired by Mr. Y.”

    • Yeah, that’s my thinking on this, too. Wikipedia says, “It’s inspired by Broyard” because they found two people who guesstimated it was. Roth himself says, “No, it’s inspired by Tumin,” and they blow him off because he doesn’t count ’til he gets the all-holy second reference.

      That’s weapons-grade stupid. And weapons-grade stupid, along with spectacularly overblown egomania, infects Wikipedia from top to goddamn bottom.

      • Anonymous

        An efficient summary.

      • This is why I don’t let students use Wikipedia as a source.

  • Informant

    Anyone else think that “An Unhappy Event in the Life of Melvin Tumin” would make a great book title?

  • Kadin

    You’re completely wrong about the Wikipedia policy on this. I’m not sure why you chose to stop reading the policy halfway through, but if you had continued to the bit immediately after the section you quoted, you would have seen this:

    Self-published and questionable sources as sources on themselves

    Self-published or questionable sources may be used as sources of information about themselves, especially in articles about themselves, without the requirement that they be published experts in the field, so long as:

    * the material is neither unduly self-serving nor an exceptional claim;
    * it does not involve claims about third parties (such as people, organizations, or other entities);
    * it does not involve claims about events not directly related to the subject;
    * there is no reasonable doubt as to its authenticity;
    * the article is not based primarily on such sources.

    These requirements also apply to pages from social networking sites such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.

    A verified Twitter account or Facebook page or a personal website would definitely be sufficient to verify the claim that Roth was not inspired by such-and-such an event. Tweets and Facebook pages and personal websites are frequently cited on Wikipedia as sources for claims the authors make about themselves.

    • Visitor

      Verified tweets from the frickin’ Harlem Renaissance, you want?

      Philip Roth, questionable author???


    • Vance Maverick

      Granting for the moment that Roth (b. 1933) might have tweeted or Facebook-posted during the composition of a book published in 2000, this still seems inadequate. Suppose he was on record in 1999 writing, “I’m basing my character on Tumin.” That’s interesting and relevant, but hardly proof that he wasn’t also thinking of Broyard. If we came across a letter from Roth from after the publication date, expressing surprise at learning Broyard’s story, that comes closer.

      Artists do have privileged access to their own intentions, but they’re also unreliable narrators about themselves.

  • Anderson

    I am getting tired of Wikipedia – the more people get involved with it, the dumber it gets, thus surely validating some general law or other.

    There’s a newly-discovered pic thought to be a photo of Emily Dickinson, which would make it the second ever. On the Dickinson article’s talk page, someone suggested the article should mention the picture. To which the answer was, no, because it hasn’t been authenticated yet.

    Which I guess is why there are NO pictures of Shakespeare on his article.

    • NonyNony

      I am getting tired of Wikipedia – the more people get involved with it, the dumber it gets, thus surely validating some general law or other.

      “The Wisdom of Crowds”.

  • Barry Freed

    Slashdot post here Submitted without comment.

  • Visitor


    See, now that both Romney and Gingrich have argued (to the press) that Clinton *really* meant to cut BHO down, well that must be true, in the wiki-editor’s mind, no matter what Mr. Clinton did or will say on the matter.

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