6

Topic challenges for Literature SE were first proposed and enacted in March 2017. The motivation for these, as well as to bring our users together in a community activity of reading the same books or stories together at roughly the same time, is to increase the diversity of literature covered on our site, as well as perhaps our own diversity of reading material.

We ran 26 topic challenges, with varying degrees of success, between April 2017 and July 2019, each one lasting for one month. After that we had a brief hiatus to discuss the issue of waning participation, and then re-ignited the topic challenges in October 2019 under a new system, which is described as follows.

Each topic challenge lasts for two months, and is announced one month in advance. Each month a new one begins, so that at any given time, there should be two overlapping topic challenges ongoing.

Topic challenges are proposed by posting an answer to this very meta question - everyone feel free to join in with an answer below! Each month the highest-voted answer will be chosen and a new meta post will be created for that topic challenge.


Guidelines for Voting on a Topic Challenge

Voting on these challenges is pretty simple, but make sure you do it with care and thought.

If the post fulfills the spirit of the reading challenge, and does indeed offer exposure to culture or thought that many people might not otherwise see, we'd suggest voting up.

If the post does not fulfill the spirit of the reading challenge, and does not offer exposure to new culture or thought, then we'd suggest voting down. And maybe leave a comment about why you're not sure it's a helpful challenge suggestion, because it's possible someone just misunderstood the purpose behind this.

The above is copied from the original thread. From the 2019 discussion, another potential criterion for topic challenge success emerged: the existence of shorter works that are available online as part of the challenge. Thus it might be suggested to bear this in mind when voting: a topic challenge is generally more likely to be a success if it includes some shorter works available online. But of course, feel free to vote however you see fit. Diversity of topics is the most important criterion.

Guidelines for Suggesting a Topic Challenge

Here are the most important principles, again taken from the original 2017 thread and the 2019 discussion. The bullet points below are also largely inspired by the original 2017 thread, but I've edited quite heavily for brevity.

Your challenge suggestion can be... honestly, whatever you'd like it to be. Please do make challenges that fall outside of what users of the site might predominantly already read. That's sort of why we're doing this.

Post more proposals for shorter works that are available online. This makes the proposal more accessible to everyone. The potential downside to this suggestion is that it may be harder to find find non-English texts, especially non-English texts that are also available in an English translation, especially online, unless the content is so old that it is in the public domain.

When you propose a topic challenge, please consider the following:

  • Why is this topic interesting? A short explanation to motivate people to take part in it is helpful. Motivations might include learning about a culture which is represented in, or which produced, that work of literature, or listing different types of interesting questions that might arise about it.
  • What is included? If the challenge is wider than a single book or story - e.g. an author, or a wider set of works such as a genre - please try to include at least a partial list of some works included. Ideally, with links: either to more information about those works, or (if possible and legal) to sites where the works themselves are available to be read.
  • Describe the sort of prior knowledge you think would be helpful to have. Please be mindful of the difficulty some texts pose. If a text would be valuable to study, but has a knowledge and time barrier that makes the book unreasonably difficult to delve into for someone outside of it, it may not be a good fit for a reading challenge.
  • Please remember that the minimum age for the site is 13, and a percentage of our users are young, so please, within reason, attempt to suggest books that are not too graphic, or contain inordinate amounts of strong language. This doesn't mean that the book can't have language, but please keep this in mind.

Currently Ongoing Topic Challenges

Previous Topic Challenges

Older ones (one-month topic challenges) are listed in the older meta post.

  • 2
    Why a new meta post for this? Because we've rebooted the topic challenges in a slightly different system, not all of the stuff in the old post still applies, the list was getting long, and - perhaps most importantly - votes were stagnating on the old post. The hope is that, with a fresh new start, we can re-attract people's interest to posting and voting on proposals in answers. – Rand al'Thor Apr 19 at 12:04

24 Answers 24

6

Literary Theory: An Introduction

Many questions on this site are about the fictional world created by a work of literature. Examples include the following:

When we focus on the fictional world inside a book, we tend to ignore the literary work as a work of art, which is a very different perspective. One way of changing this perspective is by adding a bit of theory to the game. To many, "literary theory" sounds scarier than it should. If you read literature to expand your mind or change the way you look at the world (or both), literary theory does this on steroids.

For this reason, I am proposing a reading challenge based on two introductions to literary theory:

Why these two books? Both are highly readable and accessible to people who have no degree in literature. Both explain early on why theory is valuable. (In fact, after reading these books, you should understand why you never actually read without a theory.)

But why not just one of them? Well, both books take a very different approach. Culler's book talks about the types of issues that theory deals with, but discusses the individual movements and schools only in a six-page appendix (in the 1997 edition). Eagleton offers excellently readable introductions to major theoretical movements, thereby providing an excellent complement to Culler's book.

Another reason for the choice of these two books is that I wanted to propose books that I had enjoyed reading myself, which cannot be said of every book of literary theory or criticism that I have read in the past (either as a literature student or later on).

| |
  • This proposal was inspired by an older proposal by @EJoshuaS in the old thread. However, due to the downvotes on that proposal, I thought it was important to add a good rationale. – Tsundoku Jul 26 at 21:11
6

Ko Un

Ko Un is a Korean poet who has remained a top contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Little Pilgrim could be an easy start. Some of his short poems are available online; people can get a taste at Poetry Foundation and on the Brief Poems blog.

  • 1
    Nice suggestion! Regarding an easy start, are any of his works freely available online? – Rand al'Thor Aug 23 at 7:45
  • 2
    @Randal'Thor People can get a taste here and here. My interest in Ko Un has mostly to do with his Buddhist background. I will eat up anything zen-inspired and I am also intrigued by the practical and cultural differences between Soen, Zen and Chan. Does LibGen count as available online? I guess probably not. In that case it is perhaps not so easy for people to get their hands on most of Ko Un's works. – Eddie Kal Aug 23 at 15:38
4

The works of Theodor Fontane

The German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane (1819 - 1898), whose bicentenary was celebrated last year is known as a representative of realism and is known for novels such as Effi Briest, Frau Jenny Treibel and Der Stechlin. His works are now in the public domain; see Theodor Fontane on Wikisource and Archive.org.

Below are a few English translations that are either in the public domain or publicly available for other reasons:

| |
4

Gargantua and Pantagruel

The series of five novels on Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French humanist François Rabelais (between 1483 and 1494 – 9 April 1553) are, as Wikipedia says, "written in an amusing, extravagant, and satirical vein, and [feature] much crudity, scatological humor, and violence". The novels are not to everybody's taste (for example, George Orwell didn't like them), but Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, saw himself as Rabelais' successor in humour writing.

Rabelais is irreverent towards narrowmindedness (even though he was a monk, he also criticised the Church in a time when this was still dangerous) and pretentiousness. (Annotated editions from the 1950s still contained some partially censored footnotes.) His work has been the subject of much analysis, such as Bakhtin's study Rabelais and His World.

The series contains the following books (identified by their conventional short titles):

In the preface to Gargantua, Rabelais wrote:

Mieulx est de ris que de larmes escripre,
Pour ce que rire est le propre de l'homme.

English (Burton Raffel's translation):

I'd rather write about laughing than crying,
For laughter makes men human, and courageous.

(Originally suggested on the old list under a different user name. This is a longer reading challenge, but Rabelais is just too funny.)

| |
  • The quoted lines in French don't say anything about courageous: I'd translate the second line as "For laughter is the property of man". Maybe the "courageous" part comes from the next line? – Rand al'Thor Apr 19 at 19:29
  • @Randal'Thor You have a point about the mismatch, but those are the last two lines of the "Aux Lecteurs". – Tsundoku Apr 19 at 19:33
  • @Rand al'Thor: The courageous part was added by the translator for the sake of a rhyme. A different translation, by J.M. Cohen, is "Mirth's my theme and tears are not, / For laughter is man's proper lot." – Peter Shor Apr 23 at 20:04
4

Os Lusíadas / The Lusiads

Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões is one great classics of Portuguese literature. This epic poem, first published in 1572, "celebrates the discovery of a sea route to India by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1469–1524)" (Wikipedia).

The text can be easily found online, for example:

| |
3

Magda Szabó

Magda Szabó was a Hungarian author who wrote novels, poetry, essays, short stories, etc. Her works have been translated into many languages, many of them into English. These include:

  • The Door (Az ajtó), a 1987 story about the complex relationship between a woman (who may be modelled on the author herself) and her housekeeper;
  • The Fawn (Az őz), a 1959 story about an actress and her struggles in post-war Hungary;
  • Für Elise (2002) is a more recent adult novel that is well received.
  • Abigél (1970) is the most famous youth novel of Szabó Magda. The story takes place during the world war, and concerns a girl who is suddenly sent away from his father to a very strict religious school. Abigél is sometimes used in primary school literature courses. There is a tv film adaptation (1978) with screenplay by the author and an all-star cast of actors. The novel has been translated to many languages, including French, German, Romanian, Czech, Polish, Latvian, Italian, and there's an English translation published in 2020 (translator Lin Rex).
  • The Elf Prince Lala (Tündér Lala), a 1964 children's fantasy story about the misfit prince of a fairy kingdom;
  • The Lamb and Lawrence the Lamb (Bárány and Bárány Boldizsár), two collections of poetry published in 1947 and 1958.

More details about some of her books can be found here.

| |
3

Author challenge: Munshi Premchand (Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava)

Since this site needs more questions about non-Western literature, I'm submitting a proposal for one of the most important 20th-century authors from India. Munshi Premchand (1880 – 1936) is not well known in the West, even though he "is regarded as one of the foremost Hindi writers of the early twentieth century" (Wikipedia). He published novels, short stories and plays; not all of them have been translated into English.

Some of these translations were published on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Premchand's birth or shortly thereafter. There are also a few German translations.

The novels Godan and Nirmala are available on Archive.org, but only in Hindi.

A monograph by Madan Gopal, published in 1944, is now available on Archive.org.

| |
3

Omenuko (the first Igbo novel)

We haven't had many topic challenges for African literature - only one, as far as I remember - and Igbo is one of the most spoken languages in Africa. This novel is particularly well-suited for a topic challenge because:

  • The full text is freely and legally available online, both in the original Igbo and in English (translated by Frances Nkiru W. Pritchett, secretary of the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture in America). So it can be read without any effort or expenditure.
  • From the translator's preface, it seems that reading this book might be an interesting experience for learning about Nigerian history, Igbo culture, and some facets of their language:

    “Omenuko,” by Pita Nwana, is described as the first novel to be written in the Igbo language. It was published in 1933 after winning an all-Africa literary contest. [...] The book is still a classic in Igbo literature, and continues to be used in Nigerian schools. [...]
    The novel is set at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. There are 15 chapters, dealing with Omenuko’s life and deeds in the land of his refuge, his rise to and fall from power there, his efforts to locate and repatriate those whom he had wronged, and the maneuvers that permitted his eventual return to his native place without suffering the wrath of the villagers. Omenuko is shown to be adept at exploiting both the British colonial officials and the traditional practices of his home area. Perhaps this partially explains its popularity with modern-day Igbo people who, like Omenuko, are called on to reconcile two worlds.
    Nwana, following Igbo custom, has employed many proverbs throughout his text. I have set these apart by putting them in italics. Elsewhere, some words and phrases were inserted by the translator and are enclosed in square brackets.
    I hope that the universal elements in this tale will appeal to all readers.

  • Columbia University maintains a whole site with all sorts of useful info about Igbo language and culture, which might be useful as surrounding material if someone wants to learn more and deeper as well as reading the book. Also other Igbo novels and plays are available there.

  • As an extra bonus, if we can attract, or nurture, good knowledge/expertise about Igbo culture on this site, we may be able to get one of our highest-voted unanswered questions resolved.

| |
3

Mem and Zin (Mem û Zîn)

This story is one of the most important works of Kurdish literature - a language group so far entirely unrepresented on our site. It's a Romeo & Juliet style romantic tragedy, written by Ahmad Khani in 1692 based on oral traditions. It's been adapted into a film (in Turkish) and a TV series.

  • Being such an old story, it has an English translation freely available online.
  • Also freely available online is an entire book about the story, containing various studies and analyses, uploaded to the Kurdish Institute Library.
| |
2

Maltese literature

The Maltese language is unique in the world. With only around half a million speakers worldwide, it's the only Semitic language which is an official language of a European/EU country, and the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet. It's similar to Arabic, but evolved independently and heavily influenced by Italian. One topic we might explore is whether the uniqueness of the language has affected its literature (e.g. do metrical feet in poetry work like those in Arabic or in Italian, or even in English?)

Due to the bilinguality of most inhabitants of Malta, there's not a long history of Maltese literature. The body of literature in this language is remarkably small and recent, especially for a European language. For this reason I'm not suggesting a particular Maltese-language work or author for the topic challenge, but rather the whole collective. Examples of Maltese literature freely available online:

  • The oldest known Maltese text is Il-Kantilena, a 15th-century rhyming poem rediscovered in the 1960s.
  • Two books of Maltese poetry with English translations are freely available from their author.
  • I found a site which recommends some texts both of and about Maltese literature.

This is a very niche topic, so let's help to promote it!

| |
2

The works of Arthur Koestler (1905 – 1983)

Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian-British author and journalist. He was born in Budapest and grew up mainly in Austria. He became a member of the Communist Party of Germany in 1931, from which he resigned in 1938 because he had become disillusioned by Stalinism. His works include the following:

| |
2

The Works of Carlo Goldoni

Carlo Goldoni (1707 – 1793) was a playwright and librettist who lived in the Republic of Venice. His libretti include one for La finta semplice, an opera Mozart composed at the age of 12, and one for Vivaldi's opera Griselda. His best-known play is possibly The Servant of Two Masters, which draws on the tradition of the commedia dell'arte.

Online versions of some of his works include the following:

| |
2

The Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902 – 1991) was a Polish-American writer who wrote in Yiddish and who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. He wrote both novels and short stories:

| |
2

The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed

This book was written by a computer. That throws out a lot of possible ways to approach questions - authorial intent, in particular, becomes irrelevant - and introduces some fascinating new approaches: knowledge of computer science and artificial intelligence might be as useful as literature expertise.

Simply exploring and thinking about how to ask and answer questions here would be an interesting experience. Not much point trying to ask about plot, as there is none, but the book could be analysed in other ways, such as why certain patterns appear in the choice of words, or which existing works of literature might have inspired some of the names or passages.

It's also a perfect delight to read, at least for anyone who appreciates the weird and wacky. Consider the following excerpts from the text, and try to keep a straight face while reading them:

RICHARD. A week is obscurely like a night.
BUCKINGHAM. My Lord, chicken is like lamb.
RICHARD. Yet weeks can be killed as can chicken.
BUCKINGHAM. Tis true, my Liege, yet ambiguities adorn our pain as ambiguities broaden our issues.

There once was a furry brown noun
Had window shades which could not pound
They excreted and boggled
But still always goggled
But please sadly call them a crown

Tomatoes from England and lettuce from Canada are eaten by cosmologists from Russia. I dream implacably about this concept. Nevertheless tomatoes or lettuce inevitably can come leisurely from my home, not merely from England or Canada. My solicitor spoke that to me; I recognized it. My fatherland is France, and I trot coldly while bolting some lobster on the highway to my counsellor. He yodels a dialogue with me about neutrons or about his joy. No agreements here! We sip seltzer and begin a conversation. Intractably our dialogue enrages us. Strangely my attorney thinks and I gulp slowly and croon, "Do you follow me?"

Reading this book will guarantee you a good laugh, and Q&A about it will guarantee our site some new perspectives and ways of analysing a very unusual piece of literature.

| |
  • Copied from the old list, where it was a bit controversial in voting. I've edited the blurb a bit to try to justify it more as a topic challenge. – Rand al'Thor May 5 at 8:37
2

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan / Philosophus Autodidactus

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by the 12th-century Arab Andalusian Muslim polymath Ibn Tufail is described on Wikipedia as "the first philosophical novel". It tells the story of a little boy who grows up on a desert island, who is raised by a gazelle and "discovers ultimate truth through a systematic process of reasoned inquiry".

The novel is currently not well-known in the Western world but was a best-seller in Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It may have inspired Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.

The Wikipedia article Hayy ibn Yaqdhan lists translations in English, German and Dutch; some of the English translations are available online. More recently, Jean-Baptiste Brenet published a French adaptation of the novel, Robinson de Guadix, which would also be part of the reading challenge. Other adaptations of the same novel would also be covered by this challenge.

At the time when I am posting this suggestion, we have not yet had a reading challenge involving works in Arabic and we have only 13 questions tagged . In addition, the fact that the work was once so influential makes it intriguing.

| |
2

The Works of Georg Büchner

Georg Büchner (1813 – 1837) never reached the age of 24 but counts as one of the most important figures of 19th-century German literature. While still a student, he published the pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote / The Hessian Courier, which criticised the social injustice that existed in Hessen at the time.

Due to his death at a young age, his works fit into a single volume:

  • the play Dantons Tod (Danton's Death, 1835) is set during the French revolution and makes use of many historical sources;
  • the novella fragment Lenz is based on a document about the author J. M. R. Lenz, more specifically an episode in the author's life during which he suffered an attack of paranoid schizophrenia;
  • the play Leonce and Lena is a satire on the nobility;
  • the play Woyzeck is his best-known work and was frequently adapted into various media, most famously Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck.

One of the most important literary prizes for German literature is the Georg Büchner Prize, which has been awarded since 1951.

Büchner's works, including translations, can be found online, e.g. at Project Gutenberg and at Internet Archive.

| |
2

The works of August Wilson

Theater (other than Shakespeare) is somewhat underrepresented on our site, and August Wilson's works are particularly relevant now in light of recent events. August Wilson (1945 – 2005) received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and a number of other awards.

2

Topic challenge: Nazi Holocaust literature

This includes both fiction and non-fiction books - examples include

(Originally suggested on the original post.)

  • 1
    I downvoted this suggestion because it seems too broad to me: there are so many different works and authors here, the proposal doesn't even have clear boundaries, so it's hard to inspire people to take part and hard to keep track of posts in the challenge. – Rand al'Thor Jul 27 at 6:42
  • @Randal'Thor - I'd say the broadness is a point in favor; it's easier to find works that count for the challenge for a broad challenge rather than having to find one specific work. It allows for much wider participation, while still encouraging works in different languages and focusing on different cultures. – Mithical Aug 22 at 21:47
1

Cheese by Willem Elsschot

Everybody likes cheese, so why not read a novel about it? Cheese (in Dutch: Kaas, 1933) is a novel by the Flemish author Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) in which the main character, Frans Laarmans, a clerk, decides to become a sales agent in cheese. Without spoiling too much, I just want to say that he is out of his depth in this job.

Willem Elsschot wrote several other novels, all of which are relatively short. Cheese is "the most translated Flemish novel ever" (see Flanders Literature, where you can find a sample of the 2002 English translation).

Reviewer Chris Baker wrote,

Cheese is one of the very few comic novels that is able to escape its era and its culture. Though written almost seventy years ago, its situations are as fresh as today's office place.

It's a delectable novel ;-)

| |
1

The works of Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid is an Antiguan-American novelist and essayist who grew up in poor conditions but managed to become a published author and a professor at Harvard University. At the age of 16, she was sent to New York City to work as an au pair and she started attending evening classes at a community college. Later, she started writing for a teenage girls' magazine and eventually got employed as a staff writer by The New Yorker.

She has a unique style that has sometimes been described as magic realism, a label that she doesn't find an accurate description. Giovanna Covi described Kincaid' style as follows:

The tremendous strength of Kincaid's stories lies in their capacity to resist all canons. They move at the beat of a drum and the rhythm of jazz…

Kincaid's works include the following:

  • "Girl" (short story, The New Yorker, 1978)
  • "In the Night" (short story, The New Yorker, 1978)
  • "Wingless" (short story, The New Yorker, 1979)
  • At the Bottom of the River (short stories, 1983)
  • Annie John (novel, 1985)
  • Lucy (novel, 1990)
  • The Autobiography of My Mother (novel, 1996)
  • Mr Potter (novel, 2002)
  • See Now Then (novel, 2013)
| |
1

The Works of Thomas Middleton, "our other Shakespeare"

Thomas Middleton (1580 – 1627) was one of the most prolific Jacobean playwrights but is less well known because his work, unlike that of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, was never published in a folio edition. He wrote at least thirteen plays by himself and collaborated on numerous others. They include

The first critical edition of his works, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works edited by Gary Tailor and John Lavagnino, was published in 2007. Gary Taylor has called Middleton "our other Shakespeare" and said in an article on Florida State University's new pages,

Middleton’s work should resonate with contemporary audiences, given his themes of money, politics and sex, and his dialogue, which is easier than Shakespeare’s on the modern ear. (...) Middleton’s plays read like they could have been written yesterday.

Those who want to read Middleton's plays online and for free can do so on Chris Cleary's website The Plays of Thomas Middleton (1580-1627).

| |
1

The works of Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean/French novelist, playwright and critic. Her "novels explore racial, gender and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales" (Wikipedia). She has won awards for several of her works, which include the following:

  • Hérémakhonon (1976), her first novel, "was so controversial that it was pulled from the shelves after six months because of its criticism over the success of African socialism".
  • Segu (French: Ségou: Les murailles de terre, 1985) is set in the 19th-century Bambara or Ségou Empire of Mali and is the novel that brought her to prominence.
  • I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (French: Moi, Tituba, Sorcière…Noire de Salem, 1986) creates a character, Tituba, who was thrown into the same cell as Hester Prynne from Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
  • Windward Height (French: La migration des coeurs, 1995) is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
| |
0

The Koran

  • Along with the Bible, this has got to be one of the most read and most culturally significant books in the world. Reading it would give a connection with a very large group of people and an understanding of a culture which perhaps cannot be achieved in any other way.
  • Some experts on this book already exist on Stack Exchange, so this could be a great opportunity for cross-site pollination of expertise. If we can attract people for Koran questions, they may also stay for other Arabic literature or religious literature questions.
  • Of course, the text is easily available online in practically any language (including "simple English"), and so are many interpretations and discussions of it, in cases where there is difficulty in understanding or following it for those without religious context.
  • We've had only two questions about it so far, neither of them answered, so despite its ubiquity in many parts of the world, it seems not especially popular among our site's users. I think many of us could learn a lot from this topic challenge.

This definitely meets the criteria of being culturally significant and outside of our site's main bailiwick. I'd love this opportunity to learn more about it.

| |
  • Previously proposed on the old topic challenge thread, where it was not popular. Despite that, I'm posting it again here because I still believe it would make a good topic challenge. – Rand al'Thor Jun 27 at 13:26
-3

Works inspired by Romeo and Juliet

A Romeo-and-Juliet story by any other name would be as sweet. Or would it? Shakespeare's play has inspired many other works, spanning several languages and genres, so this challenge should inspire a great diversity of questions.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of works inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:

| |
  • For some reason, this suggestion now has three downvotes. Is this because the idea of reading works inspired by another literary work is not appealing or because the list of works inspired by Romeo and Juliet is not appealing? – Tsundoku 6 hours ago

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .