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?
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
I 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.
“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 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.
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
This 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.
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!
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.
In 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
Of 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?
Back 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.
And Reader, I’m reading it.