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Novelist Philip Roth's Dilemma and Every Author's Challenge

Novelist Philip Roth at reading table.
(photo by James Nachtwey)


 In his September 7, 2012, “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” acclaimed author Philip Roth made an appeal to the editors of Wikipedia. Posted in his blog for The New Yorker, he asked them to correct a statement he identified as misleading in the site’s article on his novel, The Human Stain. Roth––whose literary honors include a Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, and Man Booker International Prize––stated the following:

“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.”

He noted further that he had attempted through an official interlocutor to address the issue but was informed that site administrators required “secondary sources” to verify the proposed corrections. “Thus was created the occasion for this open letter.” Roth’s predicament created a pain-inducing illustration of a very modern techno-ethical issue: who should exercise the greater authority over individual public profiles on sites frequently referenced for factual information regarding an established literary figure?

Roth’s primary concern was accuracy in regard to a novel he had written. The editors at Wikipedia seemed mostly concerned with objectivity and authenticity in regard to the same. This is likely NOT a case of guerrilla decontextualization as some might surmise but more a matter of one website’s policy in conflict with one celebrated author’s informed preference.

The Challenge and a Possible Solution

Authors have long had to contend with the challenge of laboring first to create literary products and then promote them via public appearances and the maintenance of an accessible public biography. Others in different branches of the creative arts––actors, singers, painters––have had to do the same. That challenge has been magnified in this age of digital media culture because so many are now equipped and licensed to represent or misrepresent an individual at will.  Consequently, something which should be an all-around win-win situation can and clearly sometimes does degenerate instead into a tug of war between individual creative artists and administrators of various digital platforms.

If there is a single most important solution to the issue, it may be for authors to make available on legitimate sites––such as your individual author website or other literary profile pages–– as many factually accurate document sources as possible. After all, how accurate can you really expect a reference article to remain if anyone at all is allowed to change it at will?

The apparent alternative is to spend time as Roth did composing a 2,600-word letter spelling out the inaccuracies in question and flexing one’s impressive literary muscles in the process. But how many of us would be able to get such a letter published in The New Yorker?

by Aberjhani