Tag Archives: Henry James

A note from the official interlocutor

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.

From Updike to Baker to Wallace


I am happy to report that my essay about the cross-pollinations between John Updike, Nicholson Baker, and David Foster Wallace is up at the Quarterly Conversation. It’s part of the newest fall issue, which also includes essays and reviews covering Stefan Zweig, David Shields, that new “alternative history of the novel” by Steven Moore, and, as Nabokov might say, much, much more.

In the essay I argue that Baker is a kind of stylistic midpoint between Updike and Wallace, and that all three writers can be understood as stylistic sequels to one another. Finishing up the essay got me thinking about writer-on-writer influence in general and stylistic overlap in particular. At the same time I was teaching some of Henry James’s stories, and it was while reading “The Jolly Corner”–that long, digressive, thickened, dark night of the self–that I thought of Wallace’s prose, especially the prose in Oblivion, his last story collection. Does Late James have something in common with Late Wallace? There’s a more substantive, quotation-filled post there. But, as Hemingway might say, I’ll fish that swamp tomorrow.