September 7, 2012

Philip Roth fights Wikipedia.

Over what they said about the source material for "The Human Stain." Maybe he should have stayed above all this. The book speaks for itself. But this essay speaks for itself too. Does it not?
My novel “The Human Stain” was described in the entry as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”...

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....

45 comments:

rhhardin said...

I wonder who inspired the essay.

Lem said...

I wonder who inspired the essay.

Oleanna?

Oleanna is a two-character play by David Mamet, about the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being accorded tenure.

edutcher said...

I had a geography prof with a similar problem, although he confined himself to, "Does anyone know Mr ___? Does he exist?".

Chip Ahoy said...

Yes, the essay does speak for itself, it said David Roth is providing the secondary source material needed by Wikipedia by publishing in The New Yorker. Bang! Dayitiz, secondary source, you douchebags.

Chip Ahoy said...

My Macbook pro is wearing out. It bogs down and doesn't want to play anymore. Doesn't even want to do simple things. Gets hot and stops. So I discovered I can use the ice cream freezer disc, freeze it up real good, and use it as a base for the laptop and schwiiiiiing it's flying again. Cold as a popsicle down there. I would like to pass this discovery on to others so that they might be able to squeeze another month or so out a dying, complainy machine.

yashu said...

Anyone who's spent time in academia knows how true to life (or common) this kind of incident is.

Richard Dolan said...

Interesting. I've always enjoyed Roth's books, but never gave any thought to his source material. It hardly matters that the Human Stain had its beginnings in his reaction to the travails of Prof Tumen at Princeton, rather than Anatole Broyard at the NYT.

it's nice, I suppose, that Roth has gone to the trouble of setting the record straight on that. It's odd that someone else went to the trouble of making up the Broyard canard, though. Perhaps it was just a grad school know-it-all, perhaps a prankster (but that would be a pretty recherche prank). Odder still is the inane, bureaucratic response from Wikipedia, all process and no sense.

Therein lies a larger tale of modern life, bureaucratic bolck-headedness being a reality we all encounter, but since Kafka it's not the sort of thing that's inspired the imagination of many novelists.

Tim said...

Excellent, indeed.

But ironic, too.

And were the douchebags (that label is quite good - thanks, Chip A.) honorable men and women instead of douchebags, it would leave a mark.

But the internet don't care, so I'm guessing the douchebags at Wikipedia are quite pleased with themselves.

Bob_R said...

Great books speak for themselves, but good books are just part of the conversation. Roth hasn't written a great book in a long time (arguably never.) But some of his books are good. No problems with him joining the conversation about this book.

wyo sis said...

Too much irony. My brain cannot absorb it all.

bagoh20 said...

I'm from a very small town, and Wikipedia didn't have much to say about famous people from there, so I put in myself as the first man to have sex in a local department store elevator. They removed it and called it a "vanity post". Can you believe that? I wasn't looking for recognition, but history needs to be courageous about the truth. If even one young white middle-class male American with a speech defect can dream of a better life, then my sacrifice would be worth it. It's Wikityranny over there.

gadfly said...

A comment by DGHARMON on The New Yorker page:

Welcome to the club, Wikipedia is notorious for being trolled by a select few editors with an agenda ...

In this case, Roth, as the author, has had to go outside Wiki in order to convince these strange thinking resident referees that, as the author, he is declaring BS about the entry. What secondary source could possibly know the source of his writing?

wyo sis said...

It's that peer review bullshit.

When I think of peer review I get this picture of little wizened people peering at each others work, rubbing their hands with glee when it matches their own tiny ideas and quivering in outrage when they see a primary source.

Luke Lea said...

As usual, it's all about Roth.

bagoh20 said...

"Peer review" makes me think of Mao's cultural revolution.

Gabriel Hanna said...

@wyo sis:It's that peer review bullshit.

Wikipedia is not peer review, it's crowdsourcing.

Peer review is when you have things vetted by people who know a great deal about that topic.

When I think of peer review I get this picture of little wizened people peering at each others work, rubbing their hands with glee when it matches their own tiny ideas and quivering in outrage when they see a primary source.

Peer review is for primary sources. Wikipedia is not peer review, and doesn't want primary sources.

@bagoh20:"Peer review" makes me think of Mao's cultural revolution.

Scientists, being considered intellectuals, were prominent among the Red Guard's victims, so that's not surprising.

Gene said...

bagoh20: I'm from a very small town and Wikipedia didn't have much to say about famous people from there, so I put in myself as the first man to have sex in a local department store elevator.

Must have been a mighty slow elevator. Or did someone's knee hit the stop button?

F said...

Sorry, Roth. If you can't come up with a second source you're just outta luck here. How can you argue with such an unbiased group as Wikipedia? we gotta uphold journalistic ethics, after all. \sarc

creeley23 said...

OT -- I've not read anything by Roth except the first 20 pages of Portnoy, which I found annoying.

Any recommendations?

kentuckyliz said...

From the AAUP:
Not only does the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure recognize that "teachers," whether tenured or not, "are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject," but so have the courts. In 2001, a federal appellate court ruled that administrators at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Kentucky, violated the First Amendment academic freedom of Kenneth Hardy, an adjunct communications professor. An African American student and a civil rights leader complained to the administration about "offensive" language that Hardy used in a class in which students were asked to examine how language "is used to marginalize minorities and other oppressed groups in society." The discussion included as examples such terms as "bitch," "faggot," and "nigger." After the complaints were made, Hardy was not reappointed because, according to an administrator, no classes existed for him to teach. Yet before the controversy, the administration had informed Hardy that he was assigned to teach three classes that fall.

Hardy sued, arguing that the college had violated his academic freedom, and won. The court found the topic of the class—"race, gender, and power conflicts in our society"—to be a matter of public concern. It held that "a teacher's in-class speech deserves constitutional protection," and that "[r]easonable school officials should have known that such speech, when it is germane to the classroom subject matter and advances an academic message, is protected by the First Amendment." Perhaps what is most significant about this case is what is not written: the First Amendment right of academic freedom applies to all faculty at public institutions—on the tenure track or not. (The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.)

Version for the law types

He was a hero to our faculty union, of which I am a member.

He was teaching interpersonal communication, and the class discussion was about loaded words used to hurt people--he was against the use of such words--he was on the side of the student who complained against him, which highlights the crazy injustice of it all. The student enlisted the rabblerousing support of the preachers and civil rights leaders of the African American community in Louisville.

Mr. Hardy died before the lawsuit was over, but his wife and estate kept it going.

Our faculty is now 67% contract and adjunct. Sigh.

PatHMV said...

There are quite good reasons for Wikipedia not to simply accept first-hand accounts. Here, it seems quite likely that Roth is sincerely telling the truth in the linked essay. But how many authors might have reason to lie or mislead about similar matters?

Claims are regularly made that this novel or that is in fact autobiographical. If the novel contained revelations that might be embarrassing or humiliating if in fact they were based on the author's life, it would not be wise to simply accept the author's assurance that it is not autobiographical as fact.

And what about politicians? Should Barack Obama's assertions about his own life be taken as gospel truth by Wikipedia editors? Mitt Romney's? George Bush's? Or should a different standard be used for authors than for politicians?

Here's it seems easy to exercise some basic judgment about the details supplied in Roth's essay and conclude that he is telling the truth. But that will not always be the case, and Wikipedia has to have policies that can be followed easily by its legion of volunteer writers, editors, and administrators.

How would Roth have the article read? "According to an e-mail from the author to a Wikipedia admin, the novel was based on X, not Y, as others have claimed." Or "According to an edit to this article made by the author, the novel was based on X, not Y."

I don't see the Wikipedia admins here as "douchebags." It's a good policy, and is there for a reason. That this author in this particular instance is telling the truth does not invalidate the merits of Wikipedia's general policy of requiring secondary sources.

Revenant said...

The Wikipedia page has been updated to cite the essay Roth wrote.

Lem said...

What PatHMV just said.

Dude.. welcome back.

Chip Ahoy said...

Alas, there is no word for douchebag in ASL. There are words for vinegar and vaginal and spritz, and those are graphic as all hell put together, but it's just not the same.

Lem said...

No Obama like waiver for Roth.

William said...

We have the testimony of Napoleon that he became Emperor not out of any personal ambition but in order to safeguard the ideals of the French Revolution...Roth is always fooling around with his persona, making himself a fictional character in his novels. It's fair to say that he has exclusive rights to the Roth persona, but it's hard to see how this Wiki entry damages the brand or why he should take so much umbrage at the offense. The Broyard bio was widely publicized at the time he wrote his novel. It was part of the zeitgeist and part of Roth's consciousness. There's no particular reason to doubt Roth, but there's no particular reason to believe himm either. In fact, there's no particular reason to care much one way or the other.

Lem said...

Does Roth now wear the badge of honor for being the most prominent atheist?

I ask because I think Hitchens had the badge and then it must have passed to someone else when he died.

So, maybe, if he has the badge, Roth wants to see what it can do.

What can God not do for me that I can do for myself.

bagoh20 said...

"Must have been a mighty slow elevator.

Aaawww, thank you, that's very kind, but no, I was the Usain Bolt of elevator love, back then. Now it can take all night, because I fall asleep in the middle.

Carnifex said...

@KYLiz

I attended, well graced actually, the hallowed halls of JCC! School mascot is the St. Bernard(I don't know if it still is though). Anyway, you can take that I attended, napped more properly, as a compliment or condemnation, as you like :-)

Regardless, I thought "The Human Stain" was a biography of Bill Maher.

Carnifex said...

I just got the unpleasant image of Bagoh in a Aerosmith video, with Steven Tyler! Titus got me all confused sexually during the RNC convention.

Rob said...

I knew Mel Tumin back in the sixties and had no idea he was later the target of a witchhunt. He was a very good guy and an excellent teacher, and he deserved much better. Meanwhile, it's heartening to know our Chip Ahoy was able to get rid of his burning sensation "down there." The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward relief.

Craig Landon said...

Ms. Althouse,

When anyone bangs you about the quality of your commenters, refer them to this post.

Any adverse responses would certainly help me winnow the chaff.

Pastafarian said...

Here's some chaff: I've never read this author, other than this open letter, and from this, I conclude that he is one long-winded son of a bitch. Dude took thousands of words to say something he could have said in fifty.

He's like the anti-Hemingway.

Pastafarian said...

I've also had a run-in with Wikipedia: I submitted edits to an article about a particular type of electronic device. The edits were technical in nature, and I considered myself to be an authority, because I manage one of the three facilities in the world that make them.

Wikipedia removed my edits, restoring the original spammy incorrect entry.

kentuckyliz said...

JCC is a good institution with a lot of terrific teachers and programs. I have many colleague-friends there.

So is the college where I work. If you asked me as a young adult college or grad student gearing up my career, if I would be living and working in Appalachia helping those whose basic education was far inferior to what I considered normal (Iowa being one of the top education states in the country)--I would have laughed. I had far more upscaley toney plans in mind.

Experience really gets a person in touch with their core--their coeur. I discovered that I had a streak of social justice, charity, empowerment (those aren't quite the right words) that is more powerful than my desire to live a comfortable and fashionable life. I guess I discovered that I wanted to make more of a difference to people who really need that difference to be made--which is not the case for the children of privilege, who will succeed regardless of anything I do or don't do.

To be in touch with that coeur is to be a part of the "Oh yeay, it's Monday!" crowd.

DEEBEE said...

AHHH, I see Obama's "you did'nt build that" has at least permeated Wikipedia.

kentuckyliz said...

I was reading the Phillip Roth wikipedia entry and note well that he taught a bit at the University of Iowa. Its Writers' Workshop is world class. As is its International Writing Program.

The international writers lived in my dorm. A core part of my social life was readings, once or twice a week. The wine and cheese budget in the English department had to be huge. They should have had a sommelier on staff. LOL

I wanted to major in what I wanted to study--English literature. Iowa was a great place to do it. My two older sibs went to Iowa State, but I picked Iowa for the strength of its English program.

As a silly young college student, I thought being surrounded by artists and writers and presidential candidates was a normal life.

Go Hawkeyes! Beat State! The Battle of the Birds is today. The Cards beat the Cats last week so I would like a win please.

kentuckyliz said...

What I learned in lit crit at Iowa that relates to the Roth situation: what the lit crit professional say about an author's work is more important than what the author says about his/her own work.

They are smarter and the author probably has unconscious things happening showing through about which he/she is entirely unaware.

kentuckyliz said...

My original goal was to get a PhD in English literature (British) and teach.

But as a junior I took a doctoral seminar--a very small group of us. I did well in the class. It was about communication and deconstruction and Gawd knows what else.

I wrote a paper about how computers and chimps will one day be able to spontaneously compose creative writing, and I was hailed as a genius.

I didn't even believe what I was asserting in this paper.

That was the moment when I lost all confidence in my chosen field. I finished out my major because I was so far into it, but the magic was gone.

kentuckyliz said...

"Never met so many overeducated idiots in my entire life." I remember thinking that, in that moment.

Michael said...

Kentuckyliz. I did a Master's at Iowa! Learned that I was not as good a writer as the people who burned to be writers and who wrote better. I moved to the English Lit Dept and finished a Masters. We were not yet at the deconstruction stage of the devolution of learning but we were close. I too wrote long essays of which I believed not one word. Met lots of writers who excelled at drinking and screwing the female students ( perfectly fine, encouraged actually) and whose lives were pretty much total wrecks. Most now dead.

kentuckyliz said...

High fives. We Survived Iowa English.

yashu said...

The fabled Iowa Writer's Workshop! I've always wondered what that place is like.

Re "writers who excelled at drinking" and "whose lives were pretty much total wrecks," I think of Raymond Carver and John Cheever, who did nothing but drink and drink and drink together when they taught at the IWW.

creeley23 said...

One of the writing groups I was in had a guy who had been tapped for the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

He was, not surprisingly, black and gay. He wrote about his sad victimized youth in a pretentious, cut-up, avant-garde style. He couldn't be bothered to respond to anyone else's writing.

creeley23 said...

I should add that the stories of his sad victimized youth took place at a prep school.