Who’s Wikipedia? What’s Philip Roth? The digital culture war

Jimmy Wales, who helped create Wikipedia, was born in Huntsville, Ala. He went to grade school in a one-room schoolhouse run by his mom. As a child, he fell in love with encyclopedias. He can code. He is a gamer. His first online business involved porn.
Philip Roth, who is a writer, was born in Newark, N.J. His novels, many of which feature erotic scenes, have won two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. One called “The Plot Against America” won a Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Last year, Roth won a Man Booker International Prize for “lifetime achievement in fiction on the world stage.” Like Wales, Roth did some graduate work and taught college students but did not complete a Ph.D.
Roth is considered extremely famous in some circles. If you said in these circles that you’d never heard of Philip Roth, you would be considered an idiot or, more kindly, dangerously uneducated. Unlike Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, the novelist Philip Roth has never been considered one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.
This week, Roth published an incensed, long and slightly broad “open letter” to Wikipedia on the website of The New Yorker. Roth set out to correct some internecine arcana about what real-life person had served as the model for the protagonist in “The Human Stain,” a novel he published in 2000.
The letter laid bare the ways that the icons of old media and the icons of new media fail to understand one another. In fact, they hardly seem to exist on the same planet. Forget red and blue states. It would be more instructive to map the nation by counties where Wikipedia is read and counties where Philip Roth’s novels are read. Or—so as less egregiously to load the dice—counties where Jimmy Wales is known and counties where Philip Roth is known. Which do you live in?
“I know neither” is of course a highly acceptable answer.
At least two Americas, then. Each with its own civilizations, its own holy artifacts, its own shamans. For contrast: Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia, born in 2001; it has some 365 million readers in 265 languages. The New Yorker is an American general-interest weekly, born in 1925. It has a circulation of almost 1.05 million, in a single language. Wikipedia America and New Yorker America are so dug into their hierarchies of values that, really, they can only cultivate blindness about the other lest they implode in madness.
The East Coast establishment, for its part, is still so sure of itself that when Roth, one of its most esteemed denizens, finds himself narcissistically bugged in the usual way with something on Wikipedia, he doesn’t do what the rest of us do when Wikipedia narcissistically bugs us: learn the supremely learnable procedures for submitting changes to that populist and infinitely flexible document.
Roth doesn’t read enough on the site to learn that, at Wikipedia, nothing is left “on author” (as we used to say of the very rare uncheckable fact when I did my own time at The New Yorker). Everything must be sourced.
Nor does Roth divine that anonymity is the very cornerstone of any wiki, as well as humility. The entries in Wikipedia are collaboratively and conscientiously produced, for no pay or glory, out of what can only be a love of human knowledge—as well as a free-floating collective obsessiveness about getting stuff right. The entries are also unsigned.
Wikipedia puts all kinds of brakes on vandalism and propaganda. But deep in its works is also a gentlemanly code of conduct that censures gloating and credit taking and certainly lording one’s God-given authority over anyone else’s.
That’s why source citing on Wikipedia is so important. The buck stops with no one person, no single source, no classified leak, no clique at Princeton or the Vatican. Every statement of fact on Wikipedia—the highest tent pole in the system of hyperlinks that is the World Wide Web—must be linked. Or, rather, must be “footnoted”—if, reader, you happen to be Philip Roth or otherwise prefer the old lingo.
In such an ambitiously utopian polyglot civilization of anonymity and collaboration and extreme and obsessive care with linking and credit sharing, it’s no surprise that it might have seemed like a fun snickery prank to lob this firecracker: “Dear Wikipedia, I am Philip Roth.”
You are gimmicky and soulless; I am a literary superman.
And then it must have seemed more valiant still to go on to assert that only a world of morons—the same morons who probably haven’t even read “The Human Stain”—would doubt that “the author is the greatest authority on their own work.”
How ludicrous. In any value system. Everyone who reads anything doubts that the author is the greatest authority on his own work. That’s why we turn to criticism and reviews, and not just jacket copy. It’s also why Wikipedia marks with hazard stripes any entry that reads like it was written by a promoter or self-promoter. The assumption is that authors—of any kind of work, from “Portnoy’s Complaint” to Fame, Lady Gaga’s new perfume—are less reliable, because they’re leagues more partial and more biased than anyone else. (Wikipedia keeps in check the other biased types—an author’s enemies—with its vandalism rules.)
Not to mention that, of all the stone-cold wrong stuff that appears in Wikipedia all day every day, the sentence that Roth was asserting his right to bigfoot in and change by fiat was just fine as it was.
In the Wikipedia entry on “The Human Stain,” the novel was originally described as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” Through a figure whom Roth calls an “interlocutor”—old-media people often have young assistants who do online PR and damage control—Roth reports that he told Wikipedia it was all wet. Roth’s second told Wikipedia that Broyard did not inspire the character Coleman Silk.
In turn, a Wikipedian asked for a source. Roth’s man said Roth was Roth, and knew whereof he spoke. The Wikipedian said yes but you have to footnote that, same as anyone else. And then Roth saw red and wrote his appalled and self-justifying New Yorker letter, hoping to close his case with brio.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Fox News. So someone liked the brio. Fox News evidently shares Roth’s indignation: An author should be able to say what inspired his characters and have it left at that. Can you believe these new-media whack jobs? Some dubious dot-com called “Wikipedia” asking for A LINK from an author who has won a Sidewise Award for Alternate History?!
When Fox News and The New Yorker agree, it’s clear that what’s at issue is not political. It’s deeper. It’s about cultures—even civilizations. Anglo-American Great Man media empires over here; Polyglot Open-Source new media over there.
Of course, the polite Wikipedian was absolutely right to request a link. “The Human Stain,” as a novel, might rise or fall on its status as a fictionalization of the life of this or that obscure intellectual. But Wikipedia, as the near-miraculous open-source document that defines knowledge on the Web, lives or dies on the strength of its traditions of anonymity, proceduralism, humility and collaboration. Once it knuckles under to power—literary, political, any kind—it cracks. Wikipedia as it stands is chaotic and error-ridden, although anything but soulless: It breathes with the intelligence of the hundreds of millions of people, around the world, who use it and contribute to it and take pride in it and maintain it. It will take more than even Philip Roth to wreck it.
So what happened in this latest clash of the titans? Maybe the outcome is a harbinger of things to come. Roth, after all, consciously flattened his own literary forebears, and now the Hydra-like Wikipedia—a collaborative textual work that is bigger by far than any single literary opus—is steamrolling over him.
Wikipedians did, in other words, take notice of Roth’s complaint in The New Yorker. Those sharpies rarely miss anything in the news, no matter where it appears. They dutifully noted, in the entry itself, Roth’s objection to the rumors about the inspiration for his character. And then they brought on the footnotes to the original point about who “allegedly inspired” the character.
As of this writing, the “Human Stain” Wikipedia entry now reads, with the simplicity and transparency and thoroughness that Jimmy Wales has always cultivated in his masterwork: “It had been frequently claimed or suggested by critics, such as Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, Lorrie Moore, Touré, and Brent Staples, that the character Coleman Silk was inspired by Anatole Broyard, a mixed-race author and editor who was able to pass as white.”
Four footnotes are then given, to places like The New York Times.