I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” 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.
Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”
Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.
My novel “The Human Stain” was described in the entry as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” (The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia’s collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands.)
This alleged allegation is in no way substantiated by fact. “The Human Stain” was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years. One day in the fall of 1985, while Mel, who was meticulous in all things large and small, was meticulously taking the roll in a sociology class, he noted that two of his students had as yet not attended a single class session or attempted to meet with him to explain their failure to appear, though it was by then the middle of the semester.
Having finished taking the roll, Mel queried the class about these two students whom he had never met. “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”—unfortunately, the very words that Coleman Silk, the protagonist of “The Human Stain,” asks of his classics class at Athena College in Massachusetts.
Almost immediately Mel was summoned by university authorities to justify his use of the word “spooks,” since the two missing students, as it happened, were both African-American, and “spooks” at one time in America was a pejorative designation for blacks, spoken venom milder than “nigger” but intentionally degrading nonetheless. A witch hunt ensued during the following months from which Professor Tumin—rather like Professor Silk in “The Human Stain”—emerged blameless but only after he had to provide a number of lengthy depositions declaring himself innocent of the charge of hate speech.
A myriad of ironies, comical and grave, abounded, as Mel had first come to nationwide prominence among sociologists, urban organizers, civil-rights activists, and liberal politicians with the 1959 publication of his groundbreaking sociological study “Desegregation: Resistance and Readiness,” and then, in 1967, with “Social Stratification: The Forms and Functions of Inequality,” which soon became a standard sociological text. Moreover, before coming to Princeton, he had been director of the Mayor’s Commission on Race Relations, in Detroit. Upon his death, in 1995, the headline above his New York Times obituary read “MELVIN M. TUMIN, 75, SPECIALIST IN RACE RELATIONS.”
But none of these credentials counted for much when the powers of the moment sought to take down Professor Tumin from his high academic post for no reason at all, much as Professor Silk is taken down in “The Human Stain.”
And it is this that inspired me to write “The Human Stain”: not something that may or may not have happened in the Manhattan life of the cosmopolitan literary figure Anatole Broyard but what actually did happen in the life of Professor Melvin Tumin, sixty miles south of Manhattan in the college town of Princeton, New Jersey, where I had met Mel, his wife, Sylvia, and his two sons when I was Princeton’s writer-in-residence in the early nineteen-sixties.
As with the distinguished academic career of the main character of “The Human Stain,” Mel’s career, having extended for over forty years as a scholar and a teacher, was besmirched overnight because of his having purportedly debased two black students he’d never laid eyes on by calling them “spooks.” To the best of my knowledge, no event even remotely like this one blighted Broyard’s long, successful career at the highest reaches of the world of literary journalism.
This “spooks” event is the initiating incident of “The Human Stain.” It is the core of the book. There is no novel without it. There is no Coleman Silk without it. Every last thing we learn about Coleman Silk over the course of three hundred and sixty-one pages begins with his unwarranted persecution for having uttered “spooks” aloud in a college classroom. In that one word, spoken by him altogether innocently, lies the source of Silk’s anger, his anguish, and his downfall. His heinous, needless persecution stems from that alone, as do his futile attempts at renewal and regeneration.
All too ironically, that and not his enormous lifelong secret—he is the light-skinned offspring of a respectable black family from East Orange, New Jersey, one of the three children of a railroad dining-car porter and a registered nurse, who successfully passes himself off as white from the moment he enters the U.S. Navy at nineteen—is the cause of his humiliating demise.
As for Anatole Broyard, was he ever in the Navy? The Army? Prison? Graduate school? The Communist Party? Did he have children? Had he ever been the innocent victim of institutional harassment? I had no idea. He and I barely knew each other. Over more than three decades, I ran into him, casually and inadvertently, maybe three or four times before a protracted battle with prostate cancer ended his life, in 1990.
Coleman Silk, on the other hand, is killed malevolently, murdered 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. The revelations that flow from the specific circumstances of Silk’s murder stun his survivors and lead to the novel’s ominous conclusion on a desolate, iced-over lake where a showdown of sorts occurs between Nathan Zuckerman and Faunia and Coleman’s executioner, Faunia’s ex-husband, the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley. Neither Silk’s survivors nor his murderer nor his janitor mistress found their source anywhere other than in my imagination. In Anatole Broyard’s biography there were no comparable people or events as far as I knew.
I knew nothing of Anatole Broyard’s mistresses or, if he ever had any, who they were or if a woman like Faunia Farley, injured and harassed by men from the age of four, had ever come along to help savagely seal his ghastly fate as she does Coleman Silk’s and her own. I knew nothing at all of Broyard’s private life—of his family, parents, siblings, relatives, education, friendships, marriage, love affairs—and yet the most delicately private aspects of Coleman Silk’s private life constitute practically all of the story narrated in “The Human Stain.”
I’ve never known, spoken to, or, to my knowledge, been in the company of a single member of Broyard’s family. I did not even know whether he had children. The decision to have children with a white woman and possibly be exposed as a black man by the pigmentation of his offspring is a cause of much apprehension for Coleman Silk. Whether Broyard suffered such apprehension I had no way of knowing, and I still have none.
I never took a meal with Broyard, never went with him to a bar or a ballgame or a dinner party or a restaurant, never saw him at a party I might have attended back in the sixties when I was living in Manhattan and on rare occasions socialized at a party. I never watched a movie or played cards with him or showed up at a single literary event with him as either a participant or a spectator. As far as I know, we did not live anywhere in the vicinity of each other during the ten or so years in the late fifties and the sixties when I was living and writing in New York and he was a book reviewer and cultural critic for the New York Times. I never ran into him accidentally in the street, though once—as best I can remember, in the nineteen-eighties—we did come upon each other in the Madison Avenue men’s store Paul Stuart, where I was purchasing shoes for myself. Since Broyard was by this time the Times’s most intellectually stylish book reviewer, I told him that I would like to have him sit down in the chair beside me and allow me to buy him a pair of shoes, hoping thereby, I forthrightly admitted, to deepen his appreciation for my next book. It was a playful, amusing encounter, it lasted ten minutes at most, and was the only such encounter we ever had.
We never bothered to have a serious conversation. Badinage in passing was our specialty, with the result that I never learned from Broyard who were his friends or his enemies, did not know where or when he had been born and raised, knew nothing about his economic status in childhood or as an adult, knew nothing of his politics or his favorite sports teams or if he had any interest in sports at all. I did not even know where he was presently living on that day when I offered to buy him an expensive pair of shoes. I knew nothing about his mental health or his physical well-being, and I only learned he was dying of cancer many months after he’d been diagnosed, when he wrote about his struggle with the disease in the New York Times Magazine.
I had never been a guest in his house or he in mine, I knew him only as—unlike Coleman Silk, a revolutionary dean at Athena College in western Massachusetts, where he is the center of controversy over standard college matters like the curriculum and requirements for tenure—a generally generous reviewer of my books. Yet after admiring for its bravery the article about his imminent death, I got Broyard’s home number from a mutual acquaintance and called him. That was the first and last time I ever spoke to him on the phone. He was charmingly ebullient, astonishingly exuberant, and laughed heartily when I reminded him of us in our prime, tossing a football around on the lifeguard’s beach in Amagansett in 1958, which was where and when we first met. I was twenty-five then, he thirty-eight. It was a beautiful midsummer day, and I remember that I went up to him on the beach to introduce myself and tell him how much I had enjoyed his brilliant “What the Cystoscope Said.” The story had appeared in my last year of college, 1954, in the fourth number of the most sterling of the literary magazines of the era, the mass-market paperback Discovery.
Soon there were four of us—newly published writers of about the same age—bantering together while tossing a football around on the beach. Those twenty minutes throwing the ball around constituted the most intimate involvement Broyard and I ever had and brought to a total of thirty the number of minutes we would ever spend in each other’s company.
Before I left the beach that day, someone told me that Broyard was rumored to be an “octoroon.” I didn’t pay much attention or, back in 1958, lend much credence to the attribution. In my experience, octoroon was a word rarely heard beyond the American South. It’s not impossible that I had to look it up in the dictionary later to be sure of its precise meaning.
Broyard was actually the offspring of two black parents. I didn’t know this then, however, or when I began writing “The Human Stain.” Yes, someone had once idly told me that the man was the offspring of a quadroon and a black, but that unprovable bit of unlikely hearsay was all of any substance that I ever knew about Broyard—that and what he wrote in his books and articles about literature and the literary temper of his time. In the two excellent short stories Broyard published in Discovery—the other, “Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn,” appeared in 1953—there was no reason not to believe that the central character and his Brooklyn family were, like the author, a hundred per cent white.
On the other hand, over the years, not a few people had wondered if, because of certain seemingly Negroid features—his lips, his hair, his skin tone—Mel Tumin, who was adamantly Jewish in the overwhelmingly Waspy Princeton of his era, might not be an African-American passing for white. This was another fact of Mel Tumin’s biography that fed into my early imaginings of “The Human Stain.”
My protagonist, the academic Coleman Silk, and the real writer Anatole Broyard first passed themselves off as white men in the years before the civil-rights movement began to change the nature of being black in America. Those who chose to pass (this word, by the way, doesn’t appear in “The Human Stain”) imagined that they would not have to share in the deprivations, humiliations, insults, injuries, and injustices that would be more than likely to come their way should they leave their identities exactly as they’d found them. During the first half of the twentieth century, there wasn’t just Anatole Broyard alone—there were thousands, probably tens of thousands, of light-skinned men and women who decided to escape the rigors of institutionalized segregation and the ugliness of Jim Crow by burying for good their original black lives.
I had no idea what it was like for Anatole Broyard to flee from his blackness because I knew nothing about Anatole Broyard’s blackness, or, for that matter, his whiteness. But I knew everything about Coleman Silk because I had invented him from scratch, just as in the five-year period before the 2000 publication of “The Human Stain” I had invented the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath of “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995), the glove manufacturer Swede Levov of “American Pastoral” (1997), and the brothers Ringold in “I Married a Communist” (1998), one a high-school English teacher and the other a star of radio in its heyday. Neither before nor after writing these books was I a puppeteer, a glove manufacturer, a high-school teacher, or a radio star.
Finally, to be inspired to write an entire book about a man’s life, you must have considerable interest in the man’s life, and, to put it candidly, though I particularly admired the story “What the Cystoscope Said” when it appeared in 1954, and I told the author as much, over the years I otherwise had no particular interest in Anatole Broyard. Neither Broyard nor anyone associated with Broyard had anything to do with my imagining anything in “The Human Stain.”
Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ”—in this case, Mel Tumin’s story of muddleheadedness at Princeton—I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean; his colleagues both hostile and sympathetic; his field of study; his bedeviled wife; his children both hostile and sympathetic; his schoolteacher sister, Ernestine, who is his strongest judge at the conclusion of the book; his angry, disapproving brother; and five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the center of a novel.
Illustration by Andy Friedman.
Legendary writer Philip Roth – author of Portnoy's Complaint, The Plot Against America and many other novels – had to publish a letter in The New Yorker in order to correct an entry explaining his motive in writing his novel The Human Stain, so that Wikipedians would believe him. This fact – which made headlines earlier this month – has been bandied about online as more evidence of the topsy-turvy world of an amateur encyclopedia that anyone can edit, more proof that there's something fishy about the whole internet experiment.
But of course, it's not that simple. With Wikipedia, it never is. To understand why Mr Roth had to write his illuminating and fascinating letter in order to correct the record on Wikipedia, you first have to understand how Wikipedia works. How it is that something unprecedented has come to pass: that the world's leading reference work is a collective endeavour, undertaken by thousands, sprawling and brawling, and conducted without deference to individual authority.
Brian Eno recounts his friend Peter Schmidt's advice to succeed by "not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing". That is the heart of Wikipedia. Encyclopedias have always been the product of authority. First, a publisher establishes an editorial board. Then the editorial board reviews the available experts in a wide variety of subjects. Experts are then commissioned to write on the areas of their expertise, and the result is reviewed by the editors, by peers, and by fact-checkers to ensure its accuracy.
Authority flows from the top down: we trust the authority of the publisher because it has a track record for producing worthy books, or because it has attracted investment from capitalists who do due diligence before they throw their money around. The authority of the publisher is conferred on the editorial board, who then spread it over the writers and fact-checkers and so on. It's a web of known people vouching for one another and affirming the correctness and wisdom of all.
This is not the sort of thing one is able to readily do on a wiki, especially a wiki that is open to the broad public. It's hard to get large groups without any defined membership to agree on which experts are worthy and which ones are cranks. Even if this task can be accomplished, it's nothing compared to the difficulty of proving to the satisfaction of all participants, through all time, that a given user claiming to be the worthy expert that everyone trusts really is that expert.
In other words: Wikipedians not only have no way of deciding whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth, but even if they decided that he was, they have no way of knowing that the person claiming to be Philip Roth really is Philip Roth. And even if Wikipedians today decide that they believe that the PhilipRoth account belongs to the real Philip Roth, how will the Wikiepdians 10 years from now know whether the editor who called himself PhilipRoth really was Philip Roth?
Wikipedia succeeds by "not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing". Specifically, Wikipedia does not verify the identity or credentials of any of its editors. This would be a transcendentally difficult task for a project that is open to any participant, because verifying the identity claims of random strangers sitting at distant keyboards is time-consuming and expensive. If each user has to be vetted and validated, it's not practical to admit anyone who wants to add a few words to a Wikipedia entry.
(Which is not to say that Wikipedia doesn't care about identity. If you sign onto Wikipedia as HoneyBadger666 and spend 10 years making good edits to Wikipedia entries and generally being a conscientious user, this fact is significant in adjudicating the disputes you have with other users. But Wikipedia knows how to verify the HoneyBadger666 pseudonym: if you have the password for that account and if there aren't obvious signs that the account has been hacked, then the words posted from that account are taken to have originated with the account's owner. Knowing who the account's owner is isn't important – all that matters is what that account owner has done for Wikipedia.)
But if the objective identity of internet users is hard to verify, the objective existence of a published assertion is easy to demonstrate. If I want to prove to you that the the Guardian published an article on 11 September describing Roth's dispute with Wikipedia, I just need to embed a link to the story.
Wikipedia strives to confine its assertions to facts about facts, as in: "Fact X was reported by reputable source Y." This still leaves Wikipedians arguing at great length about which sources are reputable. But once consensus emerges that the Guardian is a reputable source of news, it's clear to everyone where the Guardian's website lives. No one has to argue about whether a website called TheRealGuardianNoHonestly.com is the Guardian's website.
The hard problem of identifying the origin of a fact is solved by the relative ease with which high-profile, reputable sources can be identified. Wikipedians can be moderately sure that deceptive, lookalike sites will be policed by their victims, who will have recourse to trademark and fraud laws in order to fight deceptive practices and ensure that fake sites don't become stable and highly ranked by search engines.
Authority matters to Wikipedia, but it is outsourced. Reliable sources are Wikipedia's authorities, and it must be so, because the location of reliable sources and the utterances they make are things that people who don't know each other but work together on the Internet can point to and agree upon.
Which takes us back to Philip Roth. It's impossible for Philip Roth to prove that he is Philip Roth to all Wikipedians. It's impossible for Philip Roth to prove to all Wikipedians that he is qualified to speak about his work – many writers aren't. Ray Bradbury believed Fahrenheit 451 was a novel about the evils of TV, not the evils of censorship – something that many readers and critics would dispute.
The reason critics exist – as opposed to confining all critical writing to authors' own commentary on their works – is that authors don't always know what they're doing. I certainly don't always know what I'm doing when I write my novels. If I did, writing them would be a lot less satisfying and a lot less fun.
But Wikipedians can agree that the New Yorker is a reputable source of facts about literature. When the literary editor of the New Yorker publishes Philip Roth's assertions about his own work, that editor is both verifying Philip Roth's identity – something that's as easy for an editor at the New Yorker to do as it is difficult for all of Wikipedia to do – and asserting, as someone in charge of a reputable source, that Roth's commentary on his own work is reliable.
It's not perverse for Wikipedia to insist that authors must publish essays in reputable forums if they want to correct the record on their own work. It's the only way a system like Wikipedia can work. It's not indifference to Philip Roth's authority that drives Wikipedia to snub his own edits to his literary record; it's deference to the New Yorker's authority. Wikipedia can only answer internet-shaped questions, like: "Was assertion X made on website Y?" For questions of real-world identity and personal authoritativeness, Wikipedia relies on the rest of the world to supply the credentials.