Home > cultural commentary, Process and technique > Are writers ‘credible sources’?

Are writers ‘credible sources’?

Here’s a slightly weird story.

Philip Roth – who’s pretty well-known as an author – wrote a novel, The Human Stain, published in 2000. No, I haven’t read it, but that’s not important.

Wikipedia has a page about the novel – not surprising, because it has pages on many novels. The page was generated in 2002 by a contributor and has been revised and added to on many occasions since. The page mentioned speculation by various critics that the principal character was based on the life of a literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Roth approached Wikipedia to offer a correction: despite the critics’ speculations, he’d drawn the events surrounding the principal character, and character elements, from the experiences of his friend Melvin Tumin.

The Wikipedia administrators refused to amend the entry on the basis that there was no second source to support this claim and he ‘was not a credible source’.

The entry has now been amended to reflect this exchange, but it raises interesting questions.

To what extent is any author a ‘credible source’ when discussing their own work? I’m not talking here about slips of memory or deliberately misleading statements – though those can happen – but the extent to which any literary work draws on material from a writer’s unconscious and perhaps touches on matters of which the writer was not consciously aware. I can give an old example from a piece I wrote and performed as a student: I was pleased with it, but the feedback I got after the event was that it was an interesting retelling of a Biblical story. One that wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it, and that I’d never consciously paid attention to since religious education classes in primary school. (I might add that I never kept a copy of the piece and couldn’t now tell you which Biblical story.)

What (or who) constitutes a ‘credible source’ anyway for a work of imagination? And with the passage of time, is it really possible for anyone – even with access to an author’s personal manuscripts and notes, etc. – to tell what was really in their mind when they wrote something? Does it even matter?  Because meaning is context-bound and if the book survives and is read years later, does the meaning even remain intelligible within the context of the time it was written?

As you may have seen in previous blog posts, I recently self-published a short collection of horror stories. And I’d hate to think what kinds of stuff people would find in there that I wasn’t aware I was writing, because a lot of my stories start from a single mental image, a fragment of life, or as much of a dream as I can remember when I wake up, and I try to re-imagine their contexts and consequences.

If you want to read the whole BBC story, here’s a link.

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