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.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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