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Philip Roth triumphs after Wikipedia storm

10th September 2012

Philip Roth has emerged victorious following a row about a Wikipedia edit that claimed the protagonist in his acclaimed novel The Human Stain was based on the writer and critic Anatole Broyard – something Roth vehemently denies.

In the 2000 novel, Massachusetts classics tutor Coleman Silk, who was born to black parents but raised as white, sees his life descend into chaos after a remark he makes is misconstrued as a racial slur.

In the Wikipedia entry for the book, it was claimed that the character was based on Broyard; a former reviewer for the New York Times who was himself born to black parents but raised as white.

After learning of this, Roth contacted Wikipedia to inform the website that this was a 'serious misstatement' and that Broyard did not provide any inspiration for the character of Silk.

However, Wikipedia's moderators initially refused to accept Roth's argument, claiming he was not a 'reliable source' and that a second party was needed to verify his claims.

In a 2,655-word letter to the site, Roth pointed out that Silk was actually based on a friend of his, Melvin Tumin, who had himself had a statement misinterpreted as being racist while he was teaching at Princeton in 1985.

This was described as 'the initiating incident' of The Human Stain by Roth, who argued that there would have been no novel without it.

In the letter to Wikipedia, the author also pointed out that he only encountered Broyard a handful of times in his entire life and did not know the critic sufficiently to base a character on him, while he was not even made aware of Broyard's ancestry until work on The Human Stain had already commenced.

'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,' Roth said.

The edit was eventually removed by Wikipedia and a new section has been added to the page for The Human Stain, in which the misinformation is addressed.

Roth has now criticised Wikipedia, which relies on 33,000 online contributors to remove vandalism and ensure articles are as accurate as possible.

The author, who was informed by an 'English Wikipedia Administrator' that he was not a credible source, has called for greater policing of the site to reduce the prevalence of spurious facts and mistruths that could alter public perception.

'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 stated.

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