Thursday, September 20, 2012

Philip Roth, Wikipedia and Oscar Wilde

Philip Roth was understandably annoyed when he wanted to correct a mistake in the Wikipedia entry regarding his book, The Human Stain. Apparently, they did not want to publish his correction about who had inspired his book. While acknowledging that the author of a book is an authority on his or her book, they nevertheless wanted a “secondary source”. Roth addressed them in a letter to the New Yorker and they have since apparently accepted that Roth is an authority on his own book and corrected the mistake.

Of course, the delusion is to suppose that there are necessarily any “secondary sources” in Wikipedia or that there ever can be, given the nature of the enterprise. Many who write entries for it are, naturally enough, interested in the topic about which they write. But many are also interested in themselves and in projecting their own contributions. This results in self-serving and inaccurate articles. In that sense, they are not “secondary sources”, weighing the facts dispassionately or presenting different sides of an argument or different interpretations.

I must say that I frequently consult Wikipedia for this or that, and think of it as a very worthwhile enterprise, one which at the very least guides those who want to learn more. But I never accept its authority on any important matter. It is sheer folly to rely on Wikipedia in any work of scholarship. Of course, one can modify Wikipedia entries. But is it worth the time and effort, when you know that it is not necessarily reliable, and when you know that, in a work of scholarship, you can never quite rely on it?

I have alluded to this before. What the present spat between Wikipedia and Philip Roth highlights is the illusion of “secondary sources”.

Perhaps Wikipedia should adopt as its motto a saying attributed to Oscar Wilde (I read it somewhere but cannot remember where and cannot be sure that the words below are exactly what he wrote, but they are pretty close):

“If you tell the truth, sooner or later you are bound to be found out”

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