In a case we might call The Plot Against the Literati, were we at the intersection where readers familiar with the work of Philip Roth meet babbling, hyperbolic idiocy (we have never claimed to be familiar with the work of Philip Roth, ohohoho etc.), this past weekend saw the selfsame author of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral take to the pages of The New Yorker to pen an open letter/potential future memoir chapter directed at Wikipedia.
Roth’s grievance? He ‘had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel The Human Stain‘ – take a minute at this juncture to enjoy the mental image of Philip Roth Googling himself – and discovered what he refers to as ‘a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed’, namely an unfounded assertion that The Human Stain was based upon the life of the late writer Anatole Broyard.
Upon appointing an ‘official interlocutor’ to intervene and ask Wikipedia to correct the mistake, the reply came back to Roth that, while the Wikipedia administrator who dealt with the query ‘understand[s] your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work[…] we require secondary sources.’ Thus was opened a whole new dimension of neuroses for Roth to explore in his subsequent work, work he promptly began by engaging in a lengthy diegesis about the true origins of the novel (and really doing himself no favours by pointing out that Broyard’s life was ended by prostate cancer and not, as in the novel, ‘in a planned, prearranged car crash while driving with his unlikely mistress, Faunia Farley, a local farmhand and lowly janitor in the very college where he has been a highly esteemed dean’ by ‘Faunia’s ex-husband, the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley’, which, written in that compressed manner, sounds like a parody of literary death).
Obviously there’s a thorny dilemma here. Wikipedia’s secondary sources policy is, in theory, a sound one (especially with sock puppeting currently occupying the consciousness of the reading public), ensuring that a writer can’t simply airbrush his or her entry into hagiography. Then again, who other than Roth can claim to know the spur for Roth’s own creative processes? Add in potentially defamatory claims about a third party very much unable to defend himself and it almost begins to seem like the opposite of hagiography: the work of someone with a grudge, a computer and a couple decades’ worth of gossip. If only someone would write a novel that doubled as a probing moral enquiry into the complexities of such an issue. Cough.