Well Philip Roth is in the news again, which must mean it’s time for me to blog once again. This time, Roth has written an “open letter” to Wikipedia to correct a collectively generated mistaken presupposition about the origin of his 2000 novel The Human Stain.
The letter is fascinating and amusing for lots of reasons. (O to have one’s open letters published online in the New Yorker!) On the one hand, Roth gets to correct the record, which he seems intent on doing here in his later years. My last blog post and the last occasion for a newsy flare-up related to the novelist was Roth writing in to The Atlantic magazine to clarify whether or not he in fact had a “crack up” way back when, as the magazine had alleged. Both of these clarifications hit the he-doth-protest-too-much sweet spot, and this last Wikipedia correction in particular strikes one as an older generation being caught in the barbed snares of the younger generation, the mustard gas of Web 2.0 wafting overhead.
But at the same time the letter also provides Roth a “second source,” the item he needs to correct the record on Wikipedia. Here is Roth:
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.”
He gets to point out the ridiculousness of the Wikipedian policy while also submitting to it.
This is of course ludicrous—the man’s Philip Roth!—and simultaneously right and correct. Because even though Roth protests that Coleman Silk, the protagonist of The Human Stain, was not modeled on the late literary critic Anatole Broyard, as the Wikipedia comment claimed, we as readers are free to make that interpretive mistake. It’s not like that charge came out of nowhere. That intrepretation—that the black literary intellectual who was “passing” as a Jewish intellectual, which is essentially what Broyard did—has been in critical circulation ever since the novel came out. And as biographically interpretive theories go, it ain’t that bad (or, all things considered, that violent of a conjecture to the author’s reputation or the novel’s aesthetic import). In short, if we, as readers, want Silk to be modeled on Broyard, then he is modeled on Broyard.
But at the same time it’s awfully fascinating to hear Roth go on in a Henry James-ian rumination about the germ of the original novel and to pontificate briefly about the need to make stuff up. In all of the semi-recent internet chatter about fiction vs nonficton vs nonfiction that may perhaps contain some not-quite-verifiably-truthful elements, it’s heartening to see someone so fully committed to making stuff up—where grafting imagined activities onto the root of reality is both a freedom and a burden.
And at the same time the whole thing reads like a scrap from one of Roth’s own novels—the novelist claiming that he is who he says he is despite the Kafkan internet behemoth claiming that’s not good enough, a desperate impotent rhetorical flight of self-validation! Of all the things that Roth’s ouvre has contained, surely that’s a main ingredient of it.