Wikipedia and the Writer

silhouette of a woman at a desk, viewing a computer with aa huge shadow lightbulb projected onto a lime-lit cloudscape behind her. represent Wikipedia for Writers

Image by Chen from Pixabay

Wikipedia and writers form one of the great complicated relationships of the twenty-first century. In one sense we were made for each other. The writer can look up pretty much anything from his/her desk. Without moving butt from chair or self from coffee shop, we can find the answer to just about any issue that is troubling us. Can’t we?

Trust button set to High for WikipediaWell, actually, we can mostly find AN answer. Our instinct is to trust it. And in some areas that instinct turns out to be absolutely right. The trouble is, telling which areas.

I was reminded of this by one of BBC radio’s occasional master strokes of a programme, this week. Of which, more later.

And true or false is not the only risk. For anyone (like me) who is an inveterate seeker out of overgrown paths and hidden corners, Wikipedia is a brilliant, informative, inspiring … TIME SUCK.

Wikipedia and Writer Me

rain soaked street under street lighting, for Climate ChangeI first became aware of the Wikipedia project about 2004 or so. It was at a presentation in Oxford on tipping points in climate change. Pretty much everyone, including me, welcomed the growth of unmediated social comment at that time. We thought it was likely to help human awareness of what we were doing to the planet. A People’s Encyclopaedia sounded exciting in that context.

I came home and took a look at it. There were some wonderful essays by real enthusiasts. Some of them were on stuff I’d always wondered about. I would click on one of the internal links in the text and be off down another rabbit hole.

It was great fun. But it did take up a lot of time when I should have been writing. As at least one editor pointed out.

Wikipedia and Students

And then, at a party, I met a university lecturer in history. She was fuming.

two oranges with shiny leaves against a royal blue Background - representing several Williams of Orange on Wikipedia

Image by Josch13 from Pixabay

“A load of rubbish” was leaking into student essays these days. And it was all down to Wikipedia!

The source of her particular grouch was an entry (or entries) about William of Orange. Apparently, several Williams had melded together into a sort of Orange Pudding in the students’ Hive Mind. They hadn’t noticed that this carried the chap’s exploits through a couple of centuries.

And, allegedly, nor had Wikipedia.

Wikipedia and the Writer: Lucilla Andrews

I have to admit I laughed like drain over the multiple oranges and pretty much forgot about it.

I hadn’t, at that time, tried to use Wikipedia for anything other than idle (very idle) curiosity. However, fast forward a couple of years and I am having to write an obituary for author Lucilla Andrews.

At the time I was Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and we gave her a lifetime award (a first for the RNA) only a few weeks before she died. I thought I knew enough from her autobiography, No Time for Romance, and general folk memory to bang out a few paragraphs of interest. But, just to be sure, I checked Wikipedia.

blue question marksYes, she had a page. It hadn’t yet covered her Award, not surprisingly. But everything else was more or less what I knew or expected.

With one exception…

Along with her autobiography and her thirty-odd novels, Wikipedia was crediting her with “an academic biography of a leading Roman Catholic theologian Monsignor Ronnie Knox”. Glug.

Wikipedia and the Writer of Obituaries

Church representing Lucilla Andrews's faith and interests in Wikipedia and the WriterThis left me in a horrible quandary. I could find absolutely no hint of overlap between Lucilla and Ronnie Knox. We knew from her funeral that she had worshipped at the Church of Scotland in a pretty serious way. Nor did she have any history of academic studies, as far as I could discover. She went straight into nursing at the start of the War and soon afterwards was a sole breadwinner single parent.

Well, what about Knox as a fellow writer? He was a founding member of the Detection Club and wrote nearly a dozen detective novels. But Lucilla had never written a detective novel.

He had a notable mischievous streak, which she would have enjoyed. (At our only meeting, when she was in hospital and must have known she was dying, she made Diane Pearson and me laugh our socks off with her naughty comments on the Modern Hospital.) But I searched online catalogues and couldn’t find anything on Knox by Lucilla Andrews or by her married name, Lucilla Crichton.

Her surviving family and friends had never heard her speak of such a book. And it just seemed terribly unlikely. So I crossed my fingers and left it out.

I am glad to see that it has now gone from her Wikipedia entry.

war horse, head and neck of a mounted grey horse, with just the arm and left side of his rider in the top right hand corner, joke in Wikipedia for the Writer

Image by Henryk Niestrój from Pixabay

But, to prove that the old war horse once lived and is still out at pasture on the Internet, I located her obituary in the New Zealand Herald.

Dated 20th October, it is short, pleasant and respectful.

And the key paragraph says, “Apart from her romantic fiction, which won her many awards from her peers, Andrews also published an academic biography of a leading Roman Catholic theologian, the Right Rev. Ronald Knox. Andrews was a founding member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, which recently honoured her with a lifetime achievement award.”

Glad that her Lifetime Achievement Award had made it into Wikipedia by then!

Wikipedia Today

This week there was a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 called Wiki Wars. Essentially it covered some of the early issues with open access contributions. People loved contributing and the volume of content seems to have overwhelmed the volunteer scrutineers.

And then there was the entry about John Seegenthaler, close friend of JFK and Robert Kennedy, apparently the epitome of a hero journalist. An anonymous user had posted a 5 line piece with a horrible assertion about Seegenthaler. It was untrue but it took him ages to correct.

2 stuffed toys (unicorn and troll) illustrating not taking seriously Wikipedia and the WriterIn the end, it turned out to have been a hoax. The author, eventually identified, said he never thought anyone took Wikipedia seriously as a source of information and that it was just a prank. He apologised and Seegenthaler, like the gent he clearly was, accepted it.

Founder Jimmy Wales is still on the Board of Trustees and very conscious of Wikipedia’s vulnerability to hoaxes. He aim is to uphold the principles of Wikipedia. People trust it more than they probably should, he said. But in that context, “We were never as bad as they said we were and we’re not as good as they think we are.”

One answer, it seems, is to go back to the sources that the best articles reference with footnotes. But Wikipedia has already made great strides towards establishing veracity, as the BBC programme explains.  I really commend it to you.

Lucilla Andrews on Wikipedia Today

Pink half mix with ribbons, representing new pen names of Lucilla Andrews on Wikipedia and the WriterOf course, I went back to check Lucilla Andrews’s entry on Wikipedia for this article. And not only had the reference to Ronald Knox gone but a new attribution had appeared. Apparently she also used the pen names Diana Gordon and Joanna Marcus, as whom she wrote mystery romances.

This was news to me. So I looked for a source. My trusted go-to on out of print books and their authors is the international booksellers’ state base Bookfinder.com.  Less authoritative, but also a  good indicator for popular fiction is Fantastic Fiction.

Both agreed that Lucy had written what looked like a trilogy using one or other of these names.

They certainly sounded like mystery romance, school of Mary Stewart’s woman in peril stories of the fifties and sixties. Lucy’s first, A Few Days in Endel came out in 1968, credited to Diana Gordon (ID:56417). Only then, again according to Bookfinder, “Corgi Childrens” brought it out in 1980 as by Joanna Marcus. And the same year, with the same ISBN Bookfinder ascribes it to “Publisher: Penguin Random House Children’s United Kingdom”.

Children’s books or romantic mystery? How the heck was I going to sort that one out?

Libertà launches with fanfare of trumpetsBack to Fantastic Fiction. And on there it is clear from the covers that we are, indeed, looking at romantic mysteries. What’s more, Wyndham Books (Romantic Suspense) republished them in e book format in 2019. So Wikipedia is right.

Phew.

And Reader, I’m reading it.

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

16 thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Writer

  1. lesley2cats

    A warning to us all, Jenny. I don’t think I’d use anything I found there without checking, but something might slip through!

  2. Sophie Post author

    Well, I’ve always been wary, Lesley. But many of the articles I’ve consulted recently are so detailed and clearly written by people who are much deeper into the subject than I need, that I do tend to trust them.

    But if I want to use something and it’s important, I do tend to seek corroboration, either from the sources cited or some more digging of my own. The Wikipedia nearly always gives me a good place to start with the spade.

  3. Sarah Mallory

    Another interesting post, thank you! I’m with you, Sophie, I like Wikipedia and find it a useful starting place. It’s a great tool and a fantastic achievement to have such a lot of information free online, but I think does need to be used with caution.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, indeed, Sarah.

      And, of course, while pranks and hoaxes have always been around, full-on fake news is not something I’d have worried about back in 2006. Now it’s almost the first thing I consider when seeing any surprising statement on social media, not just Wikipedia.

  4. Jan Jones

    Interesting post. As you say, Wikipedia is far better now than in the early days – I am constantly surprised by how much effort experts have put into it for no reward – but it does always pay to check with another source when something seems out of kilter.

  5. Sophie Post author

    Completely agree, Jan.

    And, of course, there is always a difficulty in proving something not to exist. Even now, I sometimes wonder whether Lucilla Andrews did an extra mural degree in later life, quite privately, and there is a thesis on Monsignor Ronnie Knox sitting on the dusty shelves of an academic library somewhere. No ISBN, no record.

  6. Elizabeth Anna Bailey

    I use Wikipedia a lot, but I also find lots of other sources online, so it’s possible to get a rounded look at any particular subject. I think it’s key to look in several places and if they all say the same, hopefully they are right. A fascinating exploration of Lucilla Andrews, Sophie. I wonder if she did indeed write the Knox book?

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, I can’t get rid of the niggling thought that she just might have written something on Knox, somewhere. Liz.

      Though it’s also just possible that the original poster on Wikipedia had muddled her with another female novelist, Penelope Fitzgerald. The latter was Knox’s niece and wrote a composite biography of her father and his three brothers. She was a very different sort of of writer from Lucilla Andrews. But if you had half-heard the story and hadn’t read either author…?

      It seems an odd thing to post for a prank or deliberate misinformation.

  7. Jenny Harper

    Great post Jenny. I remember that lunch for the Awards very well! You may recall we had one journalist who came along – and gave us some nice coverage? She was Melanie Reid, who not long after than had a disastrous fall from a horse and became tetraplegic. She has a weekly column in The Times Magazine and reviews books.
    Jenny x

    1. Sophie Post author

      It was a great occasion for me, and in large part down to your good offices, since you suggested (and negotiated an invitation) to hold it in the Scottish Parliament. Still one of my favourite modern building.

      It was good fun, too and lives on in the memory as if it were only a few years ago.

      Goodness, yes, I’d forgotten that nice piece – in the Glasgow Herald? – which was so rare in those days. And, to my shame, I didn’t remember Melanie Reid’s name either.

      I’ve read several of Spinal Columns without realising. I must do a search to see if I can find the historical piece. And will look out for her book reviews, too.

    2. Joanna

      I remember it fondly, too, Jenny, and thank you for all you did to make it happen. I also remember that visit to Lucilla Andrews in hospital (with Di Pearson and Jenny Haddon) and how amazingly upbeat and funny she was even though, as Jenny says, she must have known she was dying. An inspiring woman. And for anyone who hasn’t read her autobiography No Time For Romance I would recommend it unreservedly.

      1. Sophie Post author

        Oh goodness, yes, of course you were there, too, Joanna. I should have said. Can’t think why I didn’t. I suppose because Di Person did most of the talking, since she was the one who had really known Lucilla, especially in the difficult years when her daughter was small.

        It was a surreal encounter. I remember those blue-bright hospital lights and how frail Lucilla Andrews seemed, and still quite bruised. But bursting with vivacity and mischief, all the same. As you say, inspiring.

        1. Joanna

          Worry not. I don’t remember having contributed much as I hadn’t known her before. She and Di did almost all the talking and very entertaining it was, too. I’d forgotten the bruises but you’re right, she was quite bruised. But her spirit definitely was not.

  8. Joanna

    I use Wikipedia a lot, as will be obvious from the number of Wiki links in my blog posts. Can’t say I’ve found much that’s wrong, so far, though most of my links are to oldish historical stuff. I do very much like the fact that Wiki isn’t trying to monetise me, or stick adverts in front of my face, and I’m prepared to pay for that benefit. Given how often Wiki finds itself begging for donations, I don’t think many people pay, no matter how much they rely on it. Seems a shame.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, me too. I contribute when asked, which is usually a couple of times a year, I think.

      I’m not entirely sure what they need money for, since most contributors are still volunteers, aren’t they? Trust expenses and electronic admin, I suppose.

      1. Joanna

        Yes, the contributors are volunteers but, given the size of the wiki website, their fees to their ISP will be huge (or maybe they’re their own ISP?) They must have enormous servers, probably duplicated around the world. Plus all the add-ons they’ll need to keep the database safe from hacking. They must also have paid staff just to administer and guard all that data, surely? And yes, trust staff. I’m eternally grateful to the volunteer contributors, though, since their work is so valuable.

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