Cel (c_elisa) wrote,

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My strained relationship with Wikipedia

It all started almost two years ago when I was writing What Is Kept and was trying to get Storm and Rogue to talk about sexual orientation without, you know, actually talking about it.* Being thorougly stuck, I started trying to figure out what Rogue might have picked up from her parents, which led me to realize that Mystique and Destiny's ideas are not only pre-Stonewall, they're pre-trial of 'The Well of Loneliness; you have to think Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes, and so on. Which helped the story not at all, but did give me the idea of someday writing Mystique and Destiny Go To Paris in the 1920s. A few months ago I started doing some research in a desultory way, just to see if there was a story worth telling or not, but I got bitten by a large mutant plot bunny when I found out that Natalie Barney, as a teenager, was written up in a medical journal as an example of telepathy.

Early on, though, before I even knew who was going to be in the story, I made the mistake of doing some preliminary research on Wikipedia, and encountered the following Tale To Amaze:

She [Edna St. Vincent Millay] later went to Paris, where she met novelist Djuna Barnes, with whom she had a strained romantic relationship. Their liaison was marred by mutual jealousy, partly due to a literary rivalry, but mostly because Millay also had an affair with Barnes' long time partner, sculptress Thelma Ellen Wood. Millay allowed her involvement with both Barnes and Wood to come to light, spawning a terrible fight between the three lovers. Both Barnes and Wood ended their relationships with Millay and remained together, but later separated after feuding about another woman. Millay also was involved for some time with the photographer Berenice Abbott, and had a short affair with writer Natalie Barney.
There are a couple of actual facts in there -- shreds of truth stuck in the teeth of the beast that devoured them -- but nearly this entire passage is, in the quaint dialect of the Wikipedians, "nonverifiable" (a word analogous to our English "bullshit"). The more I read, the more I realized that all the Wikipedia articles I'd looked at were full of claims for which no reliable source exists -- much of it due to one anonymous user who had nothing better to do all May and June than bear false witness about the sex lives of every woman writer in Paris in the 1920s.

I mean, I'm not stupid, I knew Wikipedia wasn't *reliable* reliable, but I thought it would be as good as a random website you'd find through Google, maybe a little better since errors might eventually get corrected. I think that for the more popular articles that's even true, but nobody was paying attention to Djuna Barnes or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Those entries had gathered together every bit of stupidity you could find about their subjects on the Internet, like a top predator building up mercury in its tissues -- then added its own, purpose-built stupidities found nowhere else. I finally found the source of the idea that Djuna Barnes and Edna St. Vincent Millay had a "strained romantic relationship," linked from one of the Wikipedia articles where it had been repeated: a large, sloppy, but sometimes correct self-published gay history website that simply said they had a *strained relationship.* Reading comprehension for the win.

So I signed up for an account. And at first I was just going to fix obvious falsehoods and be the Edna St. Vincent Millay Nazi (No sex for you!) but, well. Then there were the language issues. Some of the entries I looked at used the word lesbian to modify *every possible noun.* Some included charming turns of phrase like "known lesbian Berenice Abbott." Natalie Barney's 55-year relationship with Romaine Brooks really shouldn't have been classed as an "affair." Djuna Barnes "won a reputation as both being openly lesbian and a heavy drinker"; I'm not sure what game that's a prize in. Her entry had a section with the highly encyclopedic title "Obsession, the Barnes/Wood Affair'; Thelma Wood's had "Barnes/Wood, passion and jealousy" as a subheading under "Sculpting career, volatile relationships." Colette's had the heading "Lesbianism, outlandish behavior." Nancy Cunard's, before I started doing meatball surgery on it, had a section called "Outlandish Behavior, Relationships," in which we were informed that "she also at this time took up alcohol, drugs, and communist fellow-travelling." All infuriating, and yet how seductive is it to see something wrong or offensive and be able to just change it? I love the edit tab. Cable news should have one, only then I'd never sleep.

I'll skip the rest of the steps; you can see where this is going. I'm now sort of on a quest to make these articles not suck, which for most of them means ground-up rewrites. Natalie Barney's entry is now more or less finished. I think. This kind of writing is surprisingly difficult, or maybe it just doesn't come naturally to me. And she's an easy subject in that her life is fascinating, but it's hard to know how to balance the article when her personal life is legendary-ish while her writings are mostly untranslated and forgotten. But I think it at least compares favorably to the old version (featuring the photo in which Natalie is sad because somebody has put whipped cream on her hat). The next step would be to try to get it through the "Featured Article" process, after which it might go on the front page for a day, which would mean (1) someone might actually read it, and (2) I would spend the entire day cleaning obscene vandalism off of it. I saw what happened to the (really quite good) entry on Dürer's Rhinoceros when *it* was on the front page.

Evidence would suggest that I'm now taking Wikipedia pretty seriously, though I should really know better. I mean, it's satisfying in a way. Anytime I have a few minutes I can clean up some vandalism (why is Picasso such a popular target?), unsnarl the confusing bibliography of a gay porn writer, or make sure the demon Rahab is properly cross-linked with Rahab the prostitute, and feel like I've done my part against entropy for the day. But I can't help thinking the whole thing's going to collapse under the sheer weight of human stupidity sooner or later. And if it doesn't, the articles I work on will just change beyond all recognition in the long run. But maybe fifty years from now someone will look up Djuna Barnes in the encyclopedia, and most of it will be about the interview with her those time travellers did ("get out of here, you freaks" said Djuna) and the movie of Nightwood that was a surprise hit in 2038, but somewhere, in the boring parts that no one pays attention to, there'll be something I wrote, one coelacanth sentence. That would be cool.

* A problem for the ages. Sometime around 1820 Anne Lister of Yorkshire engaged a neighbor in a decorous conversation about Latin literature, concluding in her ciphered diary "Miss Pickford has read the Sixth Satyr of Juvenal. She understands these matters well enough."
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