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Wikipedia to Philip Roth: Hey, you're not credible

When author Philip Roth tries to correct his Wikipedia entry, purely on factual grounds, he is told that the site needs a secondary source.

It was really quite a good movie, this. Based on a true story, I hear.
Zhukaiww/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

If someone ever wrote a Wikipedia page about you, how much would you care what it said?

Would you pore over it every day and sit back with a slightly watery eye at your life's achievement, immortalized in the Web's factual museum?

Of course you would. So imagine if someone had said that you'd been inspired by David Beckham, when, in fact your inspiration had been David Hockney, wouldn't you attempt to set things right?

Ah, but with Wikipedia, it isn't necessarily so simple.

Please share the pain of Philip Roth. He's the author who writes books about men who stain their trousers and orgies in Czechoslovakia. At least, that's what Wikipedia tells me. I didn't look for long. I might have misinterpreted.

Anyway, Roth seems to have been peeved that the Wikipedia entry about "The Human Stain" wasn't accurate. It claimed that his work had been "allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard."

Broyard wrote about getting drunk while you're ill. At least that's what a quick look on Wikipedia tells me.

And yet Roth is convinced that this claim about "The Human Stain" is not the case. Instead, he feels sure he was inspired by the life of Professor Melvin Tumin, a Princeton professor with whom he'd been friends.

In a fit of unauthor-like logic, Roth thought he could pop into Wikiland and offer up a free correction. Well, now. Sometimes these things can be like marrying a communist. It takes more than two to consummate the ritual.

Ars Technica informs me that Roth, indeed, was told -- in his own retelling-- "that I, Roth, was not a credible source."

The exact words of the Wikipedia administrator, as Roth remembers them, were: "I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources."

You know, writers do forget facts. They also take facts and distort them to suit the literary Sacher Torte they are baking. And you just know that the poor, harassed Wikipedia administrators are only trying to do their best.

Yet Roth seems oddly confident of his veracity. So he penned an open letter to Wikipedia and placed it where he knew the administrators would surely roam -- yes, in The New Yorker.

It contains elegant phrases, such as "the babble of literary gossip," and fine words, such as "quadroon."

Some might feel, however, that the letter outstays its openness. Let's then skip to the end, where Roth writes: "Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let's pretend."

Oh, indeed. So can't Wikipedia just have a little pretend information about the pretender?

Of course it can't. Perish the notion that somewhere within Wikipedia's pages there would be a falsity or even babbling gossip.

Thankfully, then, there seems to be a happy ending. Roth's open letter is -- please stand and salute -- a second source.

It has even been included in his Wikipedia entry. Which means there is one less stain on the Web's credibility.

Not many more to go, then.