Not only did Wikipedia get its facts wrong about the book he labored to write, says novelist Philip Roth, but when he reached out to the online encyclopedia to request a correction, editors there maintained that they knew better about the book than the author.
Roth didn’t say it, but the message conveyed in a recent open letter posted on the New Yorker Website was pretty clear: What chutzpah!
Roth insists, that despite what Wikipedia would have one believe, his novel “The Human Stain” about a black college professor passing as white, was not based on the real-life story of Anatole Broyard, an author and book critic who was of mixed race but identified as being white.
“The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip–there is no truth in it at all,” Roth wrote to the magazine.
When a representative contacted Wikipedia on Roth’s behalf, a Wikipedia administrator told him: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work… but we require secondary sources.”
Instead, Roth says the inspiration for the novel’s protagonist Coleman Silk was based on “an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some 30 years.”
Tumin, like Silk, found himself embroiled in a controversy, when he asked a roomful of students if two other students who had been absent all semester were actually enrolled in the class.
“Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Tumin asked, and the words were also spoken by the fictional Silk in Roth’s book.
When it was revealed that the missing students were black, some interpreted the comment as racist. In the book, Roth makes clear that the professor had used the word to mean a ghost or apparition.
By Monday afternoon, Wikipedia had amended its entry on the “Human Stain” to reflect Roth’s version of events, even quoting the New Yorker story. The article still mentions that many initial reviews of the book made a connection between fictional character Silk and Broyard.