BBC News

Author Roth rebukes Wikipedia over Human Stain edit

image captionPhilip Roth rose to prominence in 1969 with his novel Portnoy's Complaint

Renowned author Philip Roth has criticised Wikipedia after he was unable to convince the site to change an entry about one of his novels.

Roth tried to tell Wikipedia about an error in the entry for his novel The Human Stain, published in 2000.

But the site's administrators initially refused to amend the entry, saying they required a second source.

The prize-winning US author, 79, is famed for his tales of Jewish life, relationships and mortality.

The Human Stain tells the tale of Coleman Silk, a classics tutor at a fictional Massachusetts college, whose life spirals into chaos after he makes an ill-received remark judged by some as a racial slur.

According to the Wikipedia entry - which has now been amended - Silk, who Roth portrayed as born to black parents but who lived his life as a white man, was based on the character of writer and critic Anatole Broyard.

Broyard, a star book reviewer for the New York Times for many years, was also born to a black family but lived as white.

'No truth'

However, in a lengthy open letter published on the website of the New Yorker magazine, Roth insists that the idea his character was based on Broyard was utterly incorrect.

"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," Roth wrote.

In the 2,655-word letter, Roth explains instead that the character of Coleman Silk was instead based on the experience of a friend of his, whose own ill-chosen remark, made while teaching at Princeton in 1985, was also seen as a racial epithet.

In the letter, Roth describes this as "the initiating incident" of The Human Stain: "There is no novel without it. There is no Coleman Silk without it."

By contrast, Roth says of Anatole Broyard: "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."

Describing his efforts to get the entry changed, he writes in the New Yorker that he was told by the "English Wikipedia Administrator" that he "was not a credible source".

Following the publication of the New Yorker letter, the Wikipedia entry was changed and a section noting the debate inserted near its end.

Wikipedia entries and edits are policed by administrators, who have the power to delete pages, or protect those being vandalised. Recent reports suggest the number of people being approved to run the site is on the decline.

More on this story

  • Wikipedia: Meet the writers