Jonathan Lethem’s Wikipedia critique is high on flavor, low on substance

Jan 14, 2011 by     9 Comments    Posted under: Culture, Internet

Jonathan Lethem is a writer who penned an unfocused essay on why he hates Wikipedia (to the right is my portrait of him, found on his Wikipedia article, although I’ve never touched the article’s text).

The writing is bland, says Lethem; it’s ruled by a secret, powerful group of people (completely different from what you experience with the media and book reviewers); it’s pedantic and mediocre; it’s infused with ideology.

I call it death by pedantry. Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikepedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity.

Leave aside that Wikipedia’s pedantry can be one of its strengths, it is true that attempts to document reality are almost always infused with an agenda or a perspective.  This is an issue in any ontological effort, crowdsourced or not, but few of Lethem’s gripes originated with Wikipedia.

That does not matter to Lethem because he liked the problems as they existed before:

In many ways Wikipedia has narrowed the vibrant chaos of the internet just as badly as Google or Facebook could ever be accused of doing…. I liked the internet better before. The mistakes had flavor, passion, transparent purpose. You could see the drips and brushstrokes of the drying paint.

A passionate mistake with a transparent purpose? It’s difficult to conceptualize such a mistake, but it’s not what comes to mind when I think of the Tripod days.

Those “many ways” are never articulated by Lethem, but he reminds me of people who grouse that New York is not as “real” as it was in the 1980′s when it was vibrant and chaotic.  Never were these nostalgic-for-the-bad-ole-days white folks one of the people who was raped, murdered, robbed or addicted to crack.  Nobody but Jonathan Lethem wants to go back to the 1999 worldwide web.

More than half of Lethem’s ‘essay’ is a TLDR passage from Wikipedia about the plot of a 1968 Blake Edwards film that evidences “deflavored ice cream” writing.  There are reasons for such deflavoring:  People often edit a Wikipedia article because they have only one piece of information that they want to add, which is why the sentences are so heavily laden with “also” as people tack on whatever trivial tidbit.  Adding a sentence here and there does nothing to form a narrative.

The second reason for the deflavoring is that the more florid the writing, the more infused it becomes with perspective and agenda.  The site is not a creative writing project.

Lethem’s is not a fair criticism; blandness is an antidote to point-of-view.   Often an editor tries to tie all the information together in a coherent narrative, but of larger concern is the information’s accuracy.

What stuck out was the high opinion Lethem has of himself:

Go ahead, hordes, intricately mutilate the Lethem entry now, while lecturing me on the noble and objective temper of the great project.

Hordes?  Here are the November 2010 article reads for various authors on Wikipedia:

Jonathan Lethem – 6,506 hits
Elizabeth Wurtzel – 7,613
Chuck Klosterman – 12,738
Augusten Burroughs – 12,856
Joan Didion – 15,769
Bebe Buell – 27,235
Jonathan Safran Foer – 31,763

I don’t see the hordes reading your article, Jonathan, but I’m sure your essay was read by some Wikipedia editors.  It was high on flavor and low on substance.  There was little take away in terms of how to improve.  The only purpose I gleaned from the self-aggrandizing piece was to say Wikipedia sucks and to deride disparate amateurs for not meeting your own lofty standards.  Mazel tov.

9 Comments + Add Comment

  • Dave, nice response to Lethem’s rant. In his piece, Lethem comes across as a peevish snob that must not be accustomed to reading the writing of, well, layman (non-professional) writers, which provide Wikepedia’s beautiful backbone. For some pieces, substance and structure is needed over style, and not only can style obfuscate and also alienate your readership, but, as you point out, it can color through perspective and agenda. Every writing needs a voice, and Wikipedia wisely models the style of its entries after functional publications. A wise move, I suppose, but Wikipedia could not be successful any other way. Have Lethem pore over the simple functionality of a white paper, a legal brief, or an inter-office memo–examples that are successful precisely because of their “deflavoring”–as I’m not sure his education or work experience has exposed him to those sorts of pieces that flow within defined riverbeds. As a former editor of law and IR journals, I can say that any non-fictional publication who tacked “vibrant chaos” or “mistakes with flavor and passion” as their stylistic target could not be taken seriously and would not remain in publication for much longer.

    My knowledge with Lethem’s writing is limited, as I haven’t read more than perhaps two of his novels, but I dare say that it’s odd that a writer with such a particularly pointed style would make these criticisms. Any robust or free-form style imposed on Wikipedia on a macro level, describing the intricacies of cyanobacteria or the Cachetti method or import substitution industrialization or anal fissure or Pope Gregory XI, would be so awkward and self-defeating so as to border on ruination.

    • Hi Archie, thanks for the comment. His criticism almost read like it came from his own personal (bad) experience. I felt like there was something he wasn’t telling me because you’re right, most people are take-it-or-leave-it and just know they can’t rely on it.

      Do you think he came across as a peevish snob because he wrote an insufferable phrase like ‘the infinite regress of tinkering-unto-mediocrity’?

      I had issues with the bland functional publication aspect to Wikipedia when I first started, particularly with photography. I wanted to do moody angles and edgy shadows, but every photo I put up like that was taken down as not useful for the purpose and somewhat POV. I remember an argument about whether this shot was too artsy and unencyclopedic for the Sequin article. I started to take very basic, candid pictures to limit my perspective, which I found to be an amazing opportunity to extensively practice photography at its most stripped-down core.

      • Thanks for the opportunity to comment! Yes, I’d tend to agree that he had some bad experience along the way. He probably tried to edit some entries and was simply shocked (shocked!) to find that some dolt wikipedia editor (that philistine!) dismantled his towering prose–to something intelligible or more in the wikipedia style. Silly writer with his tender ego.

        I called him a peevish snob for horrible phrases like that one, sure, as part of the delicate auteur tone he adopts for the piece, sincerely, and not with some sort of mock indignation. Also, of course, for attempting to argue without pausing to consider the logical reasons for the pedantry. And yikes, rare is the writer who attacks with the phrase “passive-aggressively smug” that does not have the reader eventually conclude that he or she is him/herself passive aggressive and smug.

        Two funny points, though, having thought this over a bit more:

        1. He talks about “the damage [he] might do to [his] page” by his position, referring of course to those imagined “hordes” that would mutilate his entry after reading his snark, but I think it’s clear from his article that his Wikipedia entry would suffer a greater wound if it was permitted to be rewritten in his own unedited voice.
        2. Lethem wrote an interesting piece a few years back defending artistic plagiarism as the basis for inspiring new works (“The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism”), cribbing every single line from some other work. Novel repacking of an obvious literary chestnut. So here you have a guy who has extolled, for artistic purposes, the repurposing of some writings, and yet who is now condemning the minor standardization of clearly non-artistic writings for reasons of practicality and accessibility. Find the internal logic there if you can!

      • Ah, I didn’t comment on the Sequin topic. Sorry about that. I’d guess that it’s easier to combine elements of the basic with the artistic in photography as compared with just writing. You can always reduce the interpretation of a photo to just what’s being shot, nevermind the lighting, perspective, etc., while you can’t always guarantee that the reader will get at the pertinent information in an entry if it’s shrouded in style. My favorite authors are ones that tend to forego traditional plot for clever styling and wordplay, and I know that drives most folks up a wall. The sequin dress shot looked great–its artfulness played on other elements, but it more than fulfilled its base purpose as it did contain a clear shot of a sequin dress (as you clearly won the argument). If you want Wikipedia to be accessible to the masses, it better not be written on anything higher than a stripped-down level. When you had the argument over the photo, did you compare the experience of tailoring photographs with the writing editors? What was their advice moving forward?

        • There was no uniform advice on what to do or how to do it because in the absence of guides and standards (or pedantry, if you will), it all comes down to individual tastes. For portraits I stuck with candid head/torso shots, which is arguably the most ‘encyclopedic’ way to present a person in the infoboxes.

          Good points in your posts Archie – thanks for them!

  • Hi David,

    Long time no see! Still working on that animal documentary. Unfortunately I have to say I stand beside Lethem on this, Wikipedia just doesn’t work in my opinion but getting into details would likely cause strife so I’ll leave it at that.

    Cheers. How’s the pup?


    • Heh – hi Eric! No worries you don’t have to agree with me and I understand why people do not.

      I was thinking about that documentary only three weeks or so ago. Glad to hear it’s still on the burner. Here’s a video of the little guy struggling in the blizzard snow.

  • I recommend my students to go first to Wikipedia for general information on our topics. Wikipedia does not make any pretense. You know exactly the status and sources (as far as practicable) of articles published and it is up to the reader to judge the veracity and weight of materials published. I view it as an information democracy. I cannot imagine how it can be viewed otherwise.

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