What is a Phillip Roth?

I’m not sure why I find this so entertaining, but I just found an article by Phillip Roth, “AN OPEN LETTER TO WIKIPEDIA” in which he complains that he cannot control his own Wikipedia article. “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”  I think the Foucault of  “What is  an Author”? is spinning in his grave somewhere.

Wikipedia falsely claims, Roth says, that  the Human Stain is “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” In fact, Roth says, the novel is based on “an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton…”  The Wikipedia article, to make this debate even more post-modern, has already been changed, neatly folding the debate into the text, like egg white in a souffle.  Here’s the new entry:

Roth was motivated to explain the inspiration for the book after noticing what he referred to as a “serious misstatement” in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His request to have the entry amended was prevented by Wikipedia policy because he did not have a secondary source for his inspiration. Roth was responding to comments in the article referring to reviews by Michiko Kakutani, Lorrie Moore, Charles Taylor, and Brent Staples, who had all stated in their reviews that the book was “partly inspired by the late Anatole Broyard”, a writer and New York Times literary critic.

It’s a battle between the literary (print) and the collective (digital) forms of authorship and I think Roth is the looser. In traditional terms, the Wikipedia people have good evidence. Even if Roth didn’t consciously draw on Broyard,  a handful of smart people see a  strong connection that Ross himself could have missed. Ross’s argument is a little silly; he says, roughly, “I knew Tumin much better than I knew Broyard. Since I didn’t know Broyard well, I couldn’t write about him.”  That hardly seems conclusive, much less persuasive.

What Roth seems to miss is that Wikipedia has a different model of authority and author. A Wikipedia entry, Foucault might say, “is valorized without any questions about the identity of [its] author.”  Unlike a folk-tale or a myth, though, the validity of the entry rests on a institutional rather than historical process. In part, Ross is confusing apples and oranges. “The same types of texts have not always required authors,” Foucault notes, although “literary works are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author.” Not so much, now.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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