Wikipedia vs Philip Roth

Why the online encyclopedia isn't just the self-referential US author's concern

Last weekend Philip Roth published an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker, expressing his frustration at being unable to delete the “serious misstatement” at the heart of the entry about his 2000 novel The Human Stain. “‘I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,’ writes the Wikipedia Administrator – ‘but we require secondary sources.’”

It’s easy to smirk. Both at the idea of Roth reading about his own work on Wikipedia (sounds self-referential enough to have been a plot in one of his early novels) and the fact that the Author Himself cannot undo the damage wrought by the wiki-workforce. But does it really matter?

My time at university was recent enough for this issue to have been addressed on the very first day. The English Language and Literature intake of 2007 piled into an under-sized auditorium to watch a series of slides suggesting possible sources for research, which began in large block capital letters: NOT WIKIPEDIA. This merely established the stakes. We calmly exited the lecture hall and proceeded to surreptitiously utilise the free encyclopedia every day for the next three years. Was the advice given by our estimable don a symbol of her ludditism, of which Roth has since been accused? Or is it the dons who should be doubted, as one quirky pop band’s t-shirt argues: “University has taught me nothing that I couldn’t learn on Wikipedia.”

The need for secondary sources in Wikipedia’s terms and conditions puts it ahead of a great deal of “knowledge” available to students on the web. The site has written policies and guidelines (though non-binding) which aim to ensure clarity, reliability and resolve conflicts. A team of editors award small bronze stars to “featured” articles, which are used as a yardstick for others. Try the page on Samuel Johnson for example, a page which may or may not have proved highly useful in the second year of my degree. It all depends who’s asking.

It’s not surprising students keep on clicking. Wikipedia tends to be the top hit produced by most Google searches. Academic journals are often expensive and difficult to navigate, and while you run the risk of being fed BS on Wikipedia, the site does appear to share one’s own desire to crop unnecessary BS: giving the reader precisely what they want.

While discussing my final year dissertation, my supervisor confessed: “It’s an inevitability – use it to establish the basics, then move on to something more reliable.” The problem lies in the fact that no single individual has the power to decide what is published on the site. Information may be given the shine of authenticity (look – it says it’s true, right there!) without any kind of mediation and less-than-foolproof referencing. This, of course, is paradoxically the site’s democratic raison d’être.

Roth isn’t alone in his concern. My own tiny splash in the web of knowledge is a page I occasionally marvel at for making the experience of being in a band in my teens seem a great deal more coherent than it felt, but it helps there’s nothing bad there. Not everyone is pleased with the scraps of biographical information that wind up on Wikipedia, as Tory party chairman Grant Shapps proved recently.

Roth argues at the end of his letter that he works from what Henry James called “the germ”, the autobiographical impetus that allows one to imagine “five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the centre of a novel.” Quite understandably, his fear (and most likely my lecturer’s) is that a mere handful of bits and pieces, presented as somehow comprehensive, may do the literary work a grave injustice. It should be noted that Roth’s letter provided Wikipedia the secondary source required to fulfill his wish and delete the "misstatement". The article now has its facts straight, at least from the author’s point of view.

President Obama presents Roth with the National Humanities Medal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue