Philip Roth v. Wikipedia

Philip Roth has a problem with Wikipedia. The free encyclopaedia’s article on Roth’s superb novel The Human Stain included something that Roth characterised as “from the babble of literary gossip – there is no truth in it at all.” Unfortunately for Roth, he could not get it removed because Wikipedia requires secondary sources. He, of course, is a primary source and is therefore unacceptable according to the organisation’s guidelines.

Philip Roth. Photo by Nancy Crampton.

If you aren’t familiar with The Human Stain, I can unfairly summarise it as about a black man who passes himself off as a white man who ends up being accused of racism against African Americans. I think it is quite brilliant, so if you haven’t read it, you need to do so.

The Wikipedia article claimed that the story was “inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard,” who was a black man who portrayed himself as white. As proof, it cited several reviewers who had published their opinions about this. But Roth says that this is not true, and claimed instead he was inspired by his friend Melvin Tumin, who had used the word “spook” to mean something like “an apparition, a ghost” but was taken as a racist pejorative.

I can understand Roth’s frustration with Wikipedia. It is a hotbed for misstatements, vandalism and propaganda. I admit that I check the article on my book, Mohamed 2.0, probably a bit too often and a bit too apprehensively, because I never know what will be there. Mohamed El-Fatatry is not exactly universally loved, and there have been a few occasions of vandalism popping up here and there.

Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites on the internet, so any untruths there can cause ripples far and wide. Every so often we hear about students lifting from the site a bit too freely, or harried journalists unquestionably using it as sources for their stories. As a rule of thumb, I only use Wikipedia to find sources, not as a source itself. If it says something, check the citation they list to see if it is credible.


I can also understand Wikipedia’s guidelines. Secondary sources are believed to be more neutral than primary ones. I could publish something claiming Mohamed 2.0 was the greatest piece of literature since Great Expectations and cite myself as source. Such a scheme is ripe for abuse.

What Roth ended up doing is writing a rebuttal for the New Yorker’s website, explaining his problems with Wikipedia and the real source of inspiration for his novel. Bizarrely, Wikipedia’s story on The Human Stain cites this at the moment, which I believe they shouldn’t, because it is still a primary source, as it comes from Roth himself.

Instead, I think Roth should have consented to be interviewed by a third person, who would write an article about the issue. This story would be a secondary source, and would meet the Wikipedia guidelines for inclusion in the encyclopaedia’s story. In fact, if Mr. Roth is looking for such an interviewer, I know of a superb author who lives in Helsinki who would leap at the chance to write such an article.

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