The Roth vs. Wikipedia case : synthesis

Publié le par Jacques Goliot


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This is a translation of the « L’affaire Philip Roth 7 Synthèse » page, a synthesis of the six pages of my article « L’affaire Philip Roth » (in French). I apologize for any remaining translation mistakes.




Most French journalists who during the month of September wrote papers about the “Roth vs. Wikipedia case” gave their support to the writer, as is shown in these titles:  « Wikipédia à Philip Roth: « Vous n’êtes pas une source crédible sur vous-même » », « Philip Roth défie Wikipédia », « Philip Roth remporte une bataille contre Wikipédia »… [« Wikipedia to Philip Roth: "You are not a credible source about yourself" », « Philip Roth challenges Wikipedia », « Philip Roth victorious over Wikipedia »].


The story they told is as follows: 

a) In a Wikipedia entry, Philip Roth found a mistake about his book The Human Stain;

b) He asked Wikipedia to suppress this mistake;

c) He was rebuked as “non credible”;

d) He was forced to publish an open letter;

e) He won the fight.


I was not completely convinced; reading the Open Letter, I observed that they had almost exclusively given an interpretation of this text, although it is not perfectly clear about some issues. A search through the history of some Wikipedia pages reveals some facts and arouses some assumptions and questions. 


Facts and assumptions

In the Open Letter, Philip Roth wrote: « I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement [« My novel “The Human Stain” was described in the entry as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” »], along with two others ».

As far as I know, the three mistakes were to be found in three Wikipedia pages: « Philip Roth », « Anatole Broyard » and « The Human Stain », which I am now going to examine.


1) The « Philip Roth » page (created on the 24 November 2002)

The assertion « Allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard » was to be found on this page. 


It had been added to a « Career » part in 2010. It was suppressed on the 18 August 2012

Revision as of 14:56, 18 August 2012 Foxj (Remove some unsourced "facts" which really do need citations; see ticket:2012081410008831 »).


Three remarks: 

a) Foxj is a Wikipedia-en administrator;

b) the suppression seems to result from a request to Wikimedia (« ticket ») ;

c) The suppressed sentence was not present in the version of the 7 September 2012, although Philip Roth wrote: « The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia’s collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands. »


2) The « Anatole Broyard » page (created on the 12 November 2004)

A mention of The Human Stain was added on the 2 April 2005; in August 2012, it could be read:

« Many people thought that Broyard and his life inspired the plot and leading character of Philip Roth's acclaimed novel, The Human Stain (2000), in which the character of Coleman Silk was a mixed-race man who presented himself as Jewish and had a classical academic career. Roth denied this, saying that he had only learned about Broyard's black ancestry and choices from Gates' New Yorker article, published months after Roth had already started writing the novel.[8] ».


[8] refers to an interview by Robert Hilferty (for Bloomberg News) in September 2008 (cf. infra for details); this reference had been added on the 17 September 2008.


On the 20 August 2012, a contributor using the pseudo « Nabokov9 » suppressed the paragraph with the commentary: « I deleted the paragraph suggesting that Broyard was the model for Coleman Silk in Philip Roth's novel, THE HUMAN STAIN. This at Philip Roth's request, since the statement has no basis whatever in fact. ».


It is not difficult to discover that the pseudo « Nabokov9 » is used by M. Blake Bailey, who contributes to Wikipedia since the 27 April 2007: when he first contributed (on the « John Cheever » page), he explained: « I have almost entirely rewritten the entry. I am Cheever's authorized biographer, and Knopf will publish my biography in 2008-9. » (cf. Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life, Knopf, 2009).


The suppressed mention of Coleman Silk was restored only on the 11 September 2012; it was not present in the 7 September 2012 version.


3) The « The Human Stain » page (created on the 10 August 2002)

A first mention of Anatole Broyard was added on the 17 October 2004: « Coleman Silk is partially based on the deceased New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, a "black" man who passed as a "white man" for many decades »; it was suppressed on the 23 January 2008.


Another mention was introduced on the 24 March 2008: « critic Charles Taylor argues that Roth had to have be[en] at least partly inspired by the case of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who, like the protagonist of The Human Stain, was a black man who spent his entire professional life passing as white[1]. »

On the 26 November 2008 the following sentence was added: « Roth however states there is no connection as he only learned about Broyard being black from a New Yorker article published months after he started writing the novel.[2] ».


[2] refers to the interview of Philip Roth by Robert Hilferty (about Indignation), in which The Human Stain is mentioned in a short passage: 

« Hilferty: Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in ''The Human Stain,'' based on anyone you knew?

Roth: No. There was much talk at the time that he was based on a journalist and writer named Anatole Broyard. I knew Anatole slightly, and I didn't know he was black. Eventually there was a New Yorker article describing Anatole's life written months and months after I had begun my book. So, no connection. ».

It is noteworthy that Anatole Broyard’s name was not pronounced by Robert Hilferty, but by Philip Roth.


On the 20 August, an IP contributor ( suppressed the sentences quoted above (underlined) with this commentary (3.47 pm): « I have removed the reference to Anatole Broyard, at Philip Roth's insistence. I am his biographer. »; this intervention was immediately revoked, but at 4.07 pm a new IP intervention ( re-established the suppression with this commentary: « Once again, I removed the reference to Anatole Broyard. It is wholly inaccurate and therefore pointless. I am Roth's biographer, and have removed it at his request. ».


At 4.35 pm a new mention of Anatole Broyard was added (by contributor Parkwells); it was no more bound to Charles Taylor, but to critics Kakutani and Moore. It has never disappeared since then and consequently was present in the version of the 7 September 2012.


Who was the IP contributor? The style is very next to Nabokov9’s and we may think that he too was M. Blake Bailey (all the more as this identification is given in a French source, Rue89).



4) A more precise overview of the “story”

In the Open Letter Philip Roth wrote that « my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that… »


Examining all the gathered information we can assume that:

a) Around the 15 August a petition about three items was transmitted to Wikimedia (and not “Wikipedia”) by Philip’s Roth interlocutor, M. Blake Bailey;

b) On the 18 August, one of these three requests was accepted par administrator Foxj, but he probably said that he did not want to (or could not) do the same for the two others, because they were correctly referenced;

c) On the 20 August M. Blake Bailey suppressed those two items, but one of them was re-established by Parkwells; 

d) M. Blake Bailey got a new contact with administrator Foxj;

e) On the 25 August Foxj addressed him a message in which he asked a “secondary source” (perhaps it was simply procrastination); 

f) On the 7 September Philip Roth published his Open Letter, through which he both criticized the Wikipedia proceedings and created the “secondary source”.



5) About the Open Letter

I shall consider only one sentence: « my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator” […] that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their [his] own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.” ».

This formulation gives the impression that the 25 August message contained a sentence « Philip Roth is not a credible source »; but such an assertion would be in contradiction with « I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work », which is formally given as a quotation.



One may ask

*about the Robert Hilferty interview (September 2008)

1) whether Philip Roth knew that the « Anatole Broyard » page contained since September 2008 and the « The Human Stain » page since November 2008 a reference to his interview by Robert Hilferty;

2) why, when Robert Hilferty asked him if Coleman Silk is “based on anyone [he] knew”, did he answer that Silk is not based on Anatole Broyard, instead of answering that he is based (at least partially) on Melvin Tumin;

3) whether the impression the interview gives, that in September 2008 Philip Roth did not care very much for the Coleman Silk-Anatole Broyard issue, is correct;


*About the Open Letter

4) whether Blake Bailey was Philip Roth’s “interlocutor” and Foxj “the English Wikipedia Administrator”;

5) why did Philip Roth give much more importance to the Silk-Broyard issue in August 2012 than in September 2008;

6) why did he write « The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia’s collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands », whereas the quoted sentence had been suppressed, not altered.

7) whether the proposition « that I, Roth, am not a credible source » refers to a quotation, or results from Philippe Roth’s interpretation.


Who is the “winner”?

About the “who is right” issue, I think there are three facts to consider:

a) Philip Roth has never thought of Anatole Broyard to imagine the character of Coleman Silk;

b) some people thought of a relation between Coleman Silk and Anatole Broyard;

c) some critics assumed that Philip Roth had possibly imagined Coleman Silk in relation with Anatole Broyard or reported that many people (“gossip”) assumed it.


Had this stuff to be explained in Wikipedia? Perhaps not. But, being given that it had been introduced, was it necessary to suppress it? Probably not, from a “theoretical” point of view (the question of the relation of the readers with a text) and certainly not from a practical point of view:  the Open Letter made dozens or hundreds of people who had never heard of Anatole Broyard know him as the man “on whom the character of Coleman Silk is not based”. On another hand they also know now that this character is based on Melvin Tumin.


The “winner” seems to be Melvin Tumin, about whom a Wikipedia page was created on the 11 September 2012, obviously a consequence of the Open Letter.



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