Author criticizes Wikipedia article; Wales attacks UK government proposal: Philip Roth, a widely known and acclaimed American author, wrote an open letter in the New Yorker addressed to Wikipedia this week, alleging severe inaccuracies in the article on his The Human Stain (2000).
The saga began on Wikipedia in late August, when an IP editor—claiming to be Roth’s official biographer—removed this paragraph from the article:
Salon.com critic Charles 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. Roth states there is no connection, as he did not know Broyard had any black ancestry until an article published months after he had started writing his novel.
The IP was reverted within a minute, with the edit summary "Can you verify that?" Nineteen minutes after the revert, the IP removed the paragraph again, saying "the reference to Anatole Broyard ... is wholly inaccurate and therefore pointless. I am Roth's biographer, and have removed it at his request." The article was edited again six minutes later by Parkwells (talk·contribs), who over the next two hours added a significant amount of content to the article. The entire process was seemingly concluded within three total hours, and the article remained in this state until Roth’s open letter was published on 7 September. The new content relevant to Roth’s complaint read:
Kakutani and other critics were struck by the parallels to the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and the New York Times literary critic in the 1950s and 1960s who was of Louisiana Creole mixed-race descent and passed for white.
Roth said that he had not learned about Broyard's ancestry until after starting to write this novel.
In this open letter, which was first brought to the community's attention by a Wikimedia Foundation employee, Roth was highly critical of Wikipedia. Interestingly, the ‘interlocutor’, most likely Roth's biographer, either emailed or was emailed by an English Wikipedia administrator, who said that removing the claim would require "secondary sources", even though they acknowledged that "the author is the greatest authority on their own work." This email is what led Roth to publish in the New Yorker, giving the real inspiration for the novel and its protagonist, Coleman Silk, in great detail: the experience of Melvin Tumin, a long-tenured professor of sociology at Princeton, with a seemingly innocuous question which turned into multiple major accusations of racism.
The question, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?", was prompted by the constant absence of two students from his class. Unfortunately for Tumin, 'spooks' happened to be an old derogatory term for African Americans, and both students turned out to be from that race. It was only several months later that Tumin could clear his name, after "several lengthy depositions" and what Roth described as a "witch hunt".
It appears that while Wikipedia was correct both before and after the removals—the article versions noted that the claim was a literary reviewer's opinion, and that Roth had rebutted the claim—the article never stated the genesis of the book, leaving the Wikipedia article with phrases Roth called "not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip".
However, it also appears that the open letter was the first time Roth has identified Tumin's story as the basis for The Human Stain.
^Taylor (2000), "Lie and Life Only, Salon, Quote: "The thrill of gossip become literature hovers over “The Human Stain”: 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. But Coleman Silk is a singularly conceived and realized character, and his hidden racial past is a trap Roth has laid for his readers..."
^Lorrie Moore, "The Wrath of Athena", New York Times, 7 May 2000, accessed 20 August 2012. Quote: "In addition to the hypnotic creation of Coleman Silk -- whom many readers will feel, correctly or not, to be partly inspired by the late Anatole Broyard -- Roth has brought Nathan Zuckerman into old age, continuing what he began in American Pastoral."
^Brent Staples, "Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny, Unless You Passed for White", New York Times, 7 September 2003, accessed 25 January 2011. Quote: "This was raw meat for Philip Roth, who may have known the outlines of the story even before Henry Louis Gates Jr. told it in detail in 'The New Yorker' in 1996. When Mr. Roth's novel about passing -- The Human Stain -- appeared in 2000, the character who jettisons his black family to live as white was strongly reminiscent of Mr. Broyard."
Wales on the so-called 'snooper's charter': Jimmy Wales sharply and publicly criticized an initiative by the British government to track internet and email use in the country when giving evidence to a British parliamentary committee this week. Using hyperbolic language, he labeled the proposal as "technologically incompetent" and "something I would expect from the Iranians or the Chinese." He was joined in this criticism by the founder of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee. Wales also stated that to protect web users, Wikimedia Foundation projects would "immediately" begin encrypting all British web connections if the bill was enacted. (More: zdnet, Guardian, Register, Telegraph)
Conservative Party chairman edits own Wikipedia entry: The Guardian, among others, reports that the new British Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, edited his own Wikipedia entry to remove information about his school history and political donations, while adding a "glowing" account of his work with homeless individuals. Shapps stated to the Daily Mail that "these days when I see stuff that's blatantly wrong on my Wiki page, I just shrug my shoulders. If people want to claim I'm a Jehovah's Witness, agnostic or crashed a car into a school wall—all real edits I'd previously changed—then I just leave them to it." The Conservative Party backed Shapps' actions, saying "Individuals are free to monitor the information that is available about them online—particularly when this information is purposefully vandalised by others. This is absolutely not in breach of Wikipedia rules."