On The Notability of Emily Noyes Maxwell
In the dog days of August 2016 I spent a Friday morning compiling what I could about the life of Emily Noyes Maxwell (“ENM”). The Presidential campaign was in a fallow period. I had a slant truth to tell, and that truth seemed timely, and that truth seemed deserving of publicity. I submitted the following on Wikipedia:
Emily Noyes Maxwell (August 25, 1921 – July 23, 2000) was an American author and painter. From 1945 until her death, she was married to the author and editor William Keepers Maxwell Jr.
From 1957 to 1965, Maxwell wrote year-end reviews of children’s books for the New Yorker’s Christmas list. During this time, she was responsible for popularizing the children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth through a positive review in the 1961 edition of her review. In painting, Maxwell moved from an early interest in abstraction to a later focus on still-life work. In 1986 she won the medal of honor of the American Women Artists. She exhibited in solo and group exhibitions both in New York and elsewhere.
Maxwell married William Keepers Maxwell Jr. in 1945. He dedicated a number of books to her, including a book of fables, The Old Man at the Railroad Cross and Other Tales (1957), some of which were written for her as bedtime stories, and others as Christmas presents. Together, the two formed the center of an important literary salon in twentieth century American letters, due in part to their shared disposition, and his work as a New Yorker editor. 
3. Jump up ^ Gopnik, Adam. “Broken Kingdom: Fifty Years of the Phantom Tollbooth”. newyorker.com. The New Yorker.
Having never contributed to the People’s Encyclopedia before, I appended the following note to this submission, intended for Wikipedia’s diligent editors:
I am submitting this page. I believe it comports with wikipedia’s [sic] technical requirements; I am positive it comports with the substantive components of the medium.
Satisfied with my participation in the vitality of American public life, I stepped outside to have a cigarette. When I came back to my computer, I was met by the following form rejection message at the top of my submission.
This submission’s references do not adequately show the subjects notability. Wikipedia requires significant coverage about the subject in reliable sources that are independent of the subject—see the guidelines on the notability of people and the golden rule. Please improve the submission’s referencing (see Wikipedia:Referencing for beginners), so that the information is verifiable, and there is clear evidence of why the subject is notable and worthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia. If additional reliable sources cannot be found for the subject, then it may not be suitable for Wikipedia at this time.
In addition to this block of text at the top of the submission was a short comment from the Wikipedia editor who had just rejected my submission, ThePlatypusofDoom:
Comment: Just because she was married to someone notable, doesn’t mean she is. Read: WP:NOTINHERITED.
The hyperlink WP:NOTINHERITED led to an internal wiki for use by Wikipedia editors and authors. It is a subsection of a set of general guidelines under the heading “Arguments to avoid in deletion discussions” (e.g., ignore arguments that are “Begging for mercy” (illustrative example: “I worked so hard on this article.”)). In addition, there are substantive guidelines under this heading, including the discussion of inherited notability ThePlatypusofDoom had directed me to consult:
Inherited notability is the idea that something qualifies for an article merely because it was associated with some other, legitimately notable subjects. This is usually phrased as “____ is notable, because it is associated with Important Subject.”
Notability requires verifiable evidence. This is why notability is usually neither inherited nor inherent: inherited and inherent notability claims can’t be verified with evidence. They are only mere personal opinion as in the examples above.
This discussion of notability at the granular level led me back to the golden rule alluded to in the superheading of the form rejection. The expression of this principle, I discovered through additional hyperlinking, is as follows (original formatting and typography sic):
Articles generally require significant coverage
in reliable sources
that are independent of the topic.
I pondered the issue, I had another cigarette. The news of the day was that the election was still in a fallow period. I watched a portion of the Omar supercut of The Wire on Youtube while reading his character summary on Wikipedia. Omar said, “That fat man has got me thinking, Butch,” to the blind bartender who keeps his bank. Or, he said words to that effect. I can’t really remember now.
I made some changes. I also expanded the work so that it would include a table of contents. The revised result included the following:
In the section on ENM’s career, the statement:
And with respect to her additional contributions the following (changes italicized):
Together, the two formed the center of an important literary salon in twentieth century American letters, due in part to their shared disposition, and his work as a New Yorker editor. In this capacity, she was, along with her husband, among the first two people to hear the completed version of Catcher in the Rye.
I also added the following section:
Personal Life and Death
Additional references were as follows:
4. Jump up ^ Maxwell, Emily (December 4, 1965). “Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Greatest Architect (Review)”. The New Yorker.
6. ^ Jump up to: a b Mendelson, Edward. “The Perils of His Magic Circle” (PDF). nyreview.com. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved August 19, 2016. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name “NYReview” defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
8. Jump up ^ Roberts, Sam (November 9, 2015). “Brookie Maxwell, An Artist and Curator, Dies at 59”. The New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2016.
I appended this additional note:
I have included more references to the subjects [sic] writing. I have also expanded the section dealing with her influence as the host of a literary salon.
Monday at work the ENM submission had a response from a new editor. An additional form rejection was appended to the submission, identical to that previously provided by ThePlatypusofDoom. And the new editor, Tokyogirl1979 had this to add on the subject:
Comment: I don’t know that you really establish how she’s independently notable outside of the people she knew and her husband. She was a part of his life, but it could easily be argued that most of what she did was along with her husband and that Maxwell could be covered in her husband’s article just as well. Her impact on his career doesn’t automatically make her notable – you need to show where people have covered her specifically.
The claim of popularizing TPT is problematic because the New Yorker doesn’t actually say that she was responsible for popularizing it. It says that she wrote a review and “then children readers instantly, mysteriously, took to it”. It doesn’t actually say that it was the review that made the work popular because they can’t actually prove this. It might have been their review or it could have been multiple reviews as a whole that led to the work’s popularity – or one of multiple other factors. You also shouldn’t be using a primary source (since the NY printed the review) to back up this claim. The reason for this is that a primary source will be more likely to draw conclusions to related things and people if it will benefit them. It’s reasonable and expected, but it doesn’t really make them an unrelated and unbiased source.
The New York Times obituary isn’t really useful either since it’s more of an obituary than a written piece on her life. Most obituaries aren’t usable, to be honest. The best way to see if something is usable obituary-wise is to see if there’s a name attached. If there’s not (ie, a journalist writing an article) then it’s most likely not usable and might be heavily based on a press release or the obit written by the family.
In the end it’s super difficult to establish notability for one spouse when the other is the far more notable of the two. For example, it was hard establishing notability for Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha King as most of her coverage was just about her as the wife of a horror author. However notability for her was established by finding articles that spoke about her as more than just the “wife of” and reviews for her work. Sadly the spouses of notable people are typically overlooked by coverage.
I wasn’t trying to run a popularity contest for ENM here. Now smarting from a second ENM rejection, I considered Wikipedia. I did some research, gathered some information. From Emma Paling, writing in the Atlantic in 2015:
Lightbreather [a female Wikipedia editor] was invited to join the Gender Gap Task Force, a project by Wikipedia editors to examine why so few women participate on the site and why there’s a lack of coverage of notable women. A few days after she joined, she says, a male editor who had expressed support for Corbett’s comments against Lightbreather began popping up on the task force’s discussion page—and others soon followed. The male editors would “show up [in online discussions] and say stuff like, ‘Well, show us evidence that there is a gender gap,’” Lightbreather said, even though Wikipedia’s article on its own gender gap states that between 84 and 91 percent of editors are male, and that the imbalance “contributes to the systemic bias in Wikipedia.” She quit the task force a few days later.
So, this was a problem. Or maybe the problem was me. Or just ENM. Or ENM and I together. The challenge with any causal analysis that seeks to muster evidence of systemic bias, in my view, is that it is almost impossible to determine what the relevant comparator ought to be. Even if you do the work and come up with a meaningful comparator, the math (in the case of an institution like Wikipedia) becomes overwhelming very quickly. The afternoon of the second ENM rejection I submitted an article on Cecily Mackworth sourced entirely from two obituaries, and then got on the train to head back home to Rockaway Beach. This submission was accepted and Cecily Mackworth had her own published Wikipedia entry by the time I was at Broad Channel.
Then, some time passed. The presidential debates happened; I submitted an article on Kim Jeong-Mi, a South Korean singer, that was also rejected (the notability of musicians is very difficult to establish); I tried to help get out the vote in Pennsylvania and was almost run over while walking on the shoulder of a highway linking two sub-developments adjacent to a farm. I wrote back to tokyogirl1979 on January 31st, posting the following to her “Talk” page:
Thanks for your thorough review of the submission for Emily Noyes Maxwell. I have reflected on your comments and feel that resubmission with minimal revision is warranted. I’ll explain in a little bit of depth right now:
1) The basic premise of this resubmission, as of the original submission, is that Emily Noyes Maxwell (ENM) is notable independent of her husband. This is supported by two strands in her working life: her painting and her writing. A sub-thesis of this resubmission is that ENM is independently notable because of her relationship with her husband. This is an independent argument from derivative notability, like might be claimed, for example, by Melania Trump. The relationship that ENM had with her husband was an essential part of working life for a number of authors. This is referenced directly in the Salinger warrant. Wikipedia’s own entry on literary salons confirms the importance of these informal gathering spaces for artistic production, and also the central place that women had in them. I think both of these claims for notability were clear, though I can see how only a cursory reading would elide the salon role into a derivative notability claim.
A bit tangentially but on this same topic – the suggestion that ENM ought to be included in her husband’s Wikipedia entry is: a) not supported by Wikipedia’s own entries regarding the independent notability of women in creating spaces for work, for example in the salon example cited above; b) entirely unsupported by any of EMN’s independent work; c) a bit disconcerting, given that I see no precedent for such a suggestion in Wikipedia’s own guidelines.
2) I have reviewed your specific source concerns. They are not convincing.
a) You say: “The claim of popularizing TPT is problematic because the New Yorker doesn’t actually say that she was responsible for popularizing it.” Tricky attribution issues aside I’m happy to concede the point that the New Yorker itself does not say this: it is in fact THE AUTHOR of TPT who makes this claim, in an article published in the New Yorker. The full quote is: “Fifty years ago, the book was rescued from the remainder table, Juster recalls, when a rhapsodic review appeared in this magazine, by Emily Maxwell (who was, among many other things, the wife of the longtime New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell), and then children readers instantly, mysteriously, took to it.” Failure to recognize the source of the quote here is understandable as a byproduct of speed. I hope I have now cleared this up. Overemphasizing the “mysterious” nature of the relationship between the review and the subsequent popularity of The Phantom Tollbooth would require being willfully obstructionist and obtuse. The claim that because this is an essay about the New Yorker in the New Yorker and is therefore biased is supported by no Wikipedia editing policy that I am aware of, and quite candidly, given the extensive reliance on poor-quality internet sources abounding throughout this website [sic]. Even if this were not a comparative matter, I would assume the presumption would be on an editor to establish the biased nature of a source, rather than merely assert bias.
b) You say: “The New York Times obituary isn’t really useful … since it’s more of an obituary.” I am at a loss to understand this argument. Here is a comparable article on the wife Akiva Goldsman which is entirely dependent on an obituary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Spikings-Goldsman. Here is another article entirely dependent on obituaries that I produced and that passed editorial standards: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecily_Mackworth. I understand the concern about press releases. Again, I think the presumption ought to be that if you wish to discredit the New York Times (or any newspaper) or the New Yorker (or any magazine) as biased as a result of either press-release style writing or shoddy internal auditing, that is upon the editor. The presumption should be in favor of reliability in these cases, as it is throughout this site.
c) Neither of these source concerns, it should be noted, answer the core of ENM’s core claims for independent notability: writing and painting. These are can [sic] be sourced elsewhere in the submission. The claims in both the obituary and the NYer piece add color to these primary claims.
3) Systemic Impacts:
Finally, you write: “In the end it’s super difficult to establish notability for one spouse when the other is the far more notable of the two.” You cite Tabitha King as a counterexample to ENM. It would not do to overemphasize this point, so I will make it succinctly: this counter example is as poorly chosen as possible. It merely establishes that the MORE notable the dominant spouse, the MORE LIKELY there will be coverage of the other spouse. This issue is precisely the opposite of independent notability—it is a form, rather, of superderivative liability.
As a mea culpa, I will admit: I have a deep personal interest in couples in which the wife, after a long and productive marriage, dies and the husband follows short [sic] after. (See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Cash; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Friendly) In my haste to emphasize this personal taste, I included the fact of EMN’s marriage in the first line of this short submission. It has now been removed to later in the submission, to allow ENM’s own work to stand independently. I think this a sufficient edit for inclusion in the People’s Encyclopedia.
If this change is not sufficient, it will pain me deeply. This will be for at least two reasons:
A) The difficulty of establishing the independent notability of wives of notable spouses is a particularly fraught issue at this time. For generations the only path to notability for women was through marriage. I had thought that America, at least, was entirely past this cruel (and ultimately unproductive) mode of accomplishment. And I had thought that the example of the independent successes (and subsequent notability) of ENM was evidence of this fact. Discovering recently that not only was America not past this wretched ghettoization of female notability has been difficult; an official Wikipedia announcement that ENM has not even established her independent notability would be, I think, devastating.
B) While encyclopedias make claims to being purely descriptive reality, Wikipedia at least acknowledges a number of its shortcomings in this area. It is a normative position, and not a descriptive one, to claim that ENM is not notable, because her husband is. I think it also revealing of the systemic bias that this institution is often accused of, but which I thought was a result of participation matters, and not a result of ideology. Because of my enthusiasm for, and reliance upon, this institution, recognizing the depths of its inherited biases will be quite a blow to my self-conception of my mind. Which is really the only thing I really value.
Once again, thank you for the time you have taken to review ENM’s submission and resubmission, and also, hopefully, this response. I look forward to a new, and hopefully revised, disposition on this matter.
Peace and aloha for 2017,
This communication was simultaneous with a resubmission, which included the following changes:
I deleted the reference to William Keepers Maxwell Jr. in the introductory matter. I instead inserted it at the beginning of the second paragraph detailing her career:
Maxwell married The New Yorker editor and author William Keepers Maxwell Jr. in 1945. He dedicated a number of books to her, including a book of fables, The Old Man at the Railroad Cross and Other Tales (1957), some of which were written for her as bedtime stories, and others as Christmas presents. . . .
References remained identical.
This submission was declined later in the evening of January 31st by a third editor, SwisterTwister, who supplied the following comment:
Comment: Not significant to satisfy the standards of significance and, as a painter herself, this would’ve needed museum collections.
The next day, February 1st, TokyoGirl1979 responded on her “Talk” page to my earlier letter:
You’ve linked to other articles, however be careful of saying that WP:OTHERSTUFFEXISTS, as the existence of other articles doesn’t necessarily mean anything. [I did not pursue the hyperlink WP:OTHERSTUFFEXISTS, as I had for WP:NOTINHERITED.] The people in those articles might be notable in other ways or they might not pass notability guidelines at all and just haven’t been found and deleted yet. For example, I don’t know that Rebecca Spikings-Goldsman necessarily merits her own article, as a search doesn’t bring up an awful lot that covers her independently of her husband. Now in the case of Cecily Mackworth, that article is severely underreferenced and I’m kind of surprised that it passed on only two references, as most articles require 4-5 sources at the very least. (The two sources pass argument was originally written to refer to people who have done extremely notable things, like be the first person in space or have won very, very notable awards.) This one was written by one of the paper’s journalists and as such, would be considered a newspaper article since it’s very long and goes into Mackworth in depth. The thing about obituaries is that most of them are written by a family member or someone who is otherwise affiliated with the person who died. Some even have more than one—an initial obituary written to announce a death right after the person dies and another published later on, after funeral arrangements have been made. You can usually tell these by the way they’re written and the one biggest tell that you’re looking at a family-written obituary is the lack of a journalist’s name attached to the article, as is the case with the NYT piece.
Something else that [sic] I didn’t notice when I went through the article is that it looks like her husband worked for the New Yorker, so that means that any reviews or articles written by that publication would be seen as a primary source, as they’re more likely to say nice things about the wife of one of their employees – especially as it makes them look better to have ties to published authors.
If you want to put this back through you can, but the problem here is that I am unlikely to be alone with my concerns and you have to be careful when sourcing articles. I’m not the only one who declined the article and if you want to ask either ThePlatypusofDoom or SwisterTwister to review the article with its current sourcing, you can – [sic] I’ve also tagged them in this message. I just don’t find the sourcing strong enough to pass GNG.
SwisterTwister added an additional comment a few days later:
Drafts are reviewed by their own merits and what’s here is simply not convincing; what establishes notability in authors is either library holdings or major reviews, none of which I see here.
I wrote the following on SwisterTwister’s Talk page several days later, on February 6th.
Thanks for reviewing this submission! I’m not sure that I understand your feedback in the context of Wikipedia’s guidelines for notability for creative individuals.
These guidelines read as follows:
“1.The person is regarded as an important figure or is widely cited by peers or successors. 2.The person is known for originating a significant new concept, theory, or technique. 3.The person has created or played a major role in co-creating a significant or well-known work or collective body of work. In addition, such work must have been the primary subject of an independent and notable work (for example, a book, film, or television series, but usually not a single episode of a television series) or of multiple independent periodical articles or reviews. 4.The person’s work (or works) either (a) has become a significant monument, (b) has been a substantial part of a significant exhibition, (c) has won significant critical attention, or (d) is represented within the permanent collections of several notable galleries or museums.”
My submission is based on the belief that EMN satisfies at least two of these criteria. In particular, in accordance with the first criteria, it is my belief that ENM’s notability as an author is established by: her own writing (sourced); her responsibility for making the reputation of TPT; her reputation in the eyes of her peers as evidenced, for example, by her responsibility in assisting with the publication of Catcher in the Rye.
With respect to her reputation as an artist, the fourth criteria includes the standard that “the person…has won significant critical attention.” ENM’s award with respect to her painting is explicitly referenced in the submission. I don’t see the requirement in the above that you reference, namely, that the subject of a submission in this category verify their notability with holdings in libraries. I believe that such a standard does not exist for very good reason.
While I am willing to concede that EMN’s notability as a either an author or a painter might present a close case, I think it quite easy to make a case for her notability based on her accomplishments across disciplines.
Marginal cases like these, and the interpretation of the rules that you are applying in the case of this submission, are rather troubling to me. While I have no doubt that submissions are reviewed on their own merits, as you suggest, my concern is that these individual merits concerns, carried out in an uncoordinated manner, work to systematically undermine the notability of figures like ENM whose work exists in multiple registers. More concerning than that, however, is the way that these individual decisions work to undermine the notability of women. It pains me to see the concessions made both here and in response to my comments on TokyoGirl1979’s page regarding derivative notability in the context of artistic communities, and the role played specifically by women in such communities. While the subject is no doubt complicated, it was my belief that in the context of Wikipedia, which has extensive discussion of artistic and literary salons, particular examples of such salon luminaries would be welcome, if only for the purposes of critique.
Having said this I urge you to reconsider your decision. This will be my final inter-Wikipedia exchange on this topic, and I thank you for your time, attention, and commitment.
By August 28, 2017, Donald Trump had been President of the United States for 218 days. I was irritable and thirsty.
Image: via Findagrave.com