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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era