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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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.