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