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

Upcoming Topic Challenge

TBD. Please vote on the suggestions below!

Previous Topic Challenges

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

Consider following this post in order to be notified of newly-suggested proposals.

  • 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 Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2020 at 12:04

14 Answers 14


The works of Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich is a Nobel Prize-winning Belarusian journalist and author. (While this is related to my proposal for Belarusian literature, my understanding is that her books were largely written in Russian, so they would likely fall outside of the scope of the previous proposal).

Several particularly well-known books by her include:


Rohingya literature

The Rohingya are a stateless people group that experiences severe persecution in Myanmar.

A few examples of literature associated with the Rohingya:

  • First, they erased our names
  • I am a Rohingya

Chingiz Aitmatov

Chingiz Torekulovich Aitmatov is one of the most famous figures in Kyrgyz literature. He wrote in both Kyrgyz and Russian, and many of his works have been translated into other languages including English.

His most well-known stories include The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, about which we had an ID question here, and Jamila / Jamilia, a romance set in rural Kyrgyzstan during World War Two. (The French poet Louis Aragon described Jamilia as "the most beautiful love story in the world".) His works are of varying length, some called short stories, some novellas, and some novels.

See also his Goodreads page.

(Posted on 14 October 2020.)


Arun Kolatkar

Arun Balkrishna Kolatkar (1932–2004) was a bilingual poet writing in English and Marathi. His first collection of English poems, Jejuri (1976), was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize the next year. Several of his other poems, both English and Marathi, appeared in magazines and anthologies from 1955 until his death. Kolatkar is also known to have written some poems in Hindi; a sample is quoted on his Wikipedia page.

Though Kolatkar was widely valorized in Bombay literary circles, he was diffident about publishing collections of his poetry and made his living as a commercial artist. He waited until he was dying of cancer to bring out further volumes. Consequently, the year of his death saw the publication of a flurry of collections in both Marathi and English. One of his Marathi volumes from that year, भिजकी वही bhij_kii vahii (The Damp Notebook), won India's highest literary honor, the Sahitya Akademi Award (Literature Academy Award).

His Marathi poems were collected in the following volumes:

  • अरुण कोलटकरच्या कविता aruN kolaT_kar_chyaa kavitaa (The Poems of Arun Kolatkar, 1977)
  • चिरीमिरी chiriimirii (The Sop, 2004)
  • भिजकी वही bhij_kii vahii (The Damp Notebook, 2004)
  • द्रोण droN (Drona, 2004)

His English collections include:

  • Jejuri (1977)
  • Kala Ghoda Poems (2004)
  • Sarpastra (2004)
  • The Boatride and Other Poems, ed. A K Mehrotra (2009)
  • Collected Poems in English, ed. A K Mehrotra (2010)

Jejuri, a record of the narrator's visit to the eponymous temple town in Maharashtra, is justly celebrated, and poems from the sequence are widely available on allpoetry.com. NYRB Classics reissued Jejuri in 2005 with an introduction by Amit Chaudhuri. Mehrotra's edition of Kolatkar's poems is also easily available on Amazon.com and other fine purveyors of your literary fix.

Kolatkar's Marathi and/or Hindi poems are somewhat harder to come by. Extensive research (i.e., cursory googling) does yield the odd website or two that carries one or more of his poems here and there. Vinay Dharwadkar's translations of a few of Kolatkar's Marathi poems have appeared in TriQuarterly 77, Winter 1989/90, and are freely available online. Kolatkar's own translations of several of his Marathi poems are included in Mehrotra's edition; comparing them Dharwadkar's translations of the corresponding poems is instructive.

Mehrotra's edition also includes Kolatkar's translations of some Marathi bhakti poetry, mainly by the 17th C. poet Tukaram, but including some by the 14th C. Janabai and the 13th C. Namdev. Kolatkar's work as a translator would be within the scope of this topic. Even though Marathi, with over 99 million speakers, is among the top 15 most widely spoken languages in the world, so far we have exactly zero questions about its rich literature on our site. It would be nice to change that.


Naim Frashëri

The national poet of Albania, and we have no questions about yet. From Wikipedia:

Frashëri's works explored themes such as freedom, humanity, unity, tolerance and revolution. His twenty two works consist of fifteen works written in Albanian as well as four in Turkish, two in Greek and one in Persian. He is considered to be the most representative writer of Sufi poetry in Albanian, and having been under the influence of his uncle Dalip Frashëri, he tried to mingle Sufism with Western philosophy in his poetical ideals. He had an extraordinarily profound impact on Albanian literature and society during the 20th century, most notably on Asdreni, Gjergj Fishta and Lasgush Poradeci, among many others.

Some of his poems are available in English here and here, for example.


The Literature of the Harlem Renaissance

The great efflorescence of African-American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance occurred roughly a century ago. In music, painting, photography, theater, and literature, the artists and writers associated with the movement sought to depict the lived experiences of their community and define a distinct African-American identity. Their poetry, drama, essays, and novels shaped the thinking of the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s.

Representative works of the movement include:

The works of Harlem Renaissance writers make interesting reading for several reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Their intrinsic merit. Poems such as Hughes' "Harlem" pack a punch even to readers unaware of their specific social and political contexts.
  • Their relationship to literary modernism. Writers like T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce were reshaping literary conventions at the same time that Harlem Renaissance writers were shaping a new canon. This leads to some rich lines of inquiry, for example around primitivism in the two movements.
  • The way in which writers such as Hughes, Cullen, and McKay navigated their intersectional position as Black and queer.
  • Their attempt to create an identity that was specifically African-American, connected both to Pan-African movements and to America as distinct from Europe.
  • The insights they might provide into the current, fraught historical moment in the US.

These works are also readily accessible. As the links above demonstrate, writings from the period are out of copyright by now and easy to find online. For those who prefer physical copies, David Levering Lewis's anthology The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (New York: Viking, 1994) includes a good selection. At least in the US, it is inexpensive and readily available in public libraries.


Spanish Civil War literature

The Spanish Civil War was a bloody conflict that raged from 1936 - 1939, and indeed continues to divide the country even to this day.

The horror, however, gave rise to a rich outpouring of art and literature. Classic examples include Hemingway's account of the struggle, For Whom the Bells Tolls, Koestler's reminiscence of being imprisoned on death-row in Sevilla, Dialogue with Death (which informed his later work Darkness at Noon), Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and of course Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Classic works by Spanish authors include The Family of Pascual Duarte by the Noel prizewinner Camilo José Cela, and The Forging of a Rebel by Arturo Barea.

As well as these older works - which have the advantage of being easily available from the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg - the war has continued to inspire literature (see, for example, this Goodreads link). Contemporary Spanish works include the bestselling The Time in Between by María Dueñas, Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, and "the Spanish Dr Zhivago", The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes.

As the historian Paul Preston remarked:

It was like this Pandora’s box that had everything. You have got Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Mussolini, Franco, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Leon Blum, fascism, communism, socialism, anarchism and liberalism – you name it, it was all there.

Despite all this richness, I only count six questions concerning it. I think it would be definitely worth raising it as a Topic Challenge.

  • Could you suggest some Spanish works about the Spanish Civil War? Surely, there must be some notable works?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 23 at 17:51
  • @Tsundoku I can think of Luna roja by Concha Espina, Bestias y farsantes by Joaquín Pérez Madrigal, or for something more popular The Time in Between by María Dueñas. Actually I wonder if Concha Espina might be a good challenge in her own right. Commented Jun 23 at 21:57
  • and not forgetting The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela. Commented Jun 23 at 22:46
  • The Time in Between by María Dueñas and The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela seem worth adding to the description. Joaquín Pérez Madrigal and Concha Espina seem hard to find in translation (and my Spanish was never good enough to easily read novels in the original language).
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 23 at 22:55
  • Oh, and the German Wikipedia article about the Spanish Civil War has a section that lists relevant works of literature.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 23 at 23:09

Native American and Canadian oral traditions

The treatment of native Canadians has been in the news quite a bit lately. I would like to propose the oral traditions, myths, and literature of native Americans and Canadians.

A few examples of books I was able to find on Amazon:

  • Native American Folklore & Traditions by Elsie Clews Parson
  • Lakota Sioux Legends and Myths: Native American Oral Traditions Recorded by Marie L. McLaughlin and Zitkala-Sa by Marie L. McLaughlin and Zitkala-Sa
  • Indigenous Poetics in Canada

Literary Hoaxes

Every few years, the literary world becomes aware of a new hoax perpetrated on it. The persona of JT LeRoy and the fake memoir of James Frey are two relatively recent examples. Examples of literary hoaxes go back at least as far as the 5th century BCE, when Onomacritus inserted forgeries of his own devising into his edition of Musaeus's oracles.

Literary hoaxes sometimes retain influence even after the hoax is exposed, whether by the perpetrator or somebody else. Thomas Chatterton, for example, became a figure of great interest among the Romantics because of his tragic life and the role his faked 15th C. Rowley poems played in it. Sadly, another hugely influential hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, continues to circulate as part of the propaganda of anti-semitic, right-wing conspiracy theory groups.

The category of "literary hoax" raises interesting questions about truth in a creative context. Frey's so-called memoir, A Million Little Pieces, would still be a well-written and moving work if considered as fiction rather than memoir. Yet its being marketed as the latter, and the scandal that ensued when its fictitious nature was revealed, demonstrate that part of the value attributed to the world rested on a truth-claim that would be inoperative if it had been marketed as fiction. What does this tell us about the truth-value of a literary memoir as opposed to that of a work of fiction?

As a thought experiment, what would happen if we were to take a reader who was unaware of the scandal surrounding A Million Little Pieces and had her read the work as fiction? How would her response and evaluation change, compared to that of a similar reader (one similarly unaware of the scandal) who read it as memoir? By definition, creative writers indulge in world-building. What are the ways in which the presentation of the built world as fiction or as memoir determine how the reader responds to and evaluates the work?

The same holds true for poetry. If the Rowley poems are good poems, does that depend on their "really" being 15th C. poems? Evidently not, since the Romantics found them well worth reading anyway, and they continue to be anthologized in reputable collections.

There also seems to be a distinction in the reception of a literary hoax depending on whether it's exposed by a third party or by the hoaxer. Frey and Chatterton attracted opprobrium. But Rabindranath Tagore, as a very young man, passed off a pastiche of poems in the 15th C. – 17th C. Vaishnava Padavali tradition as the real article. After the sequence had been published and praised, he admitted that Bhanusingher Padavali was his own creation rather than a rediscovered older manuscript. He suffered no enduring blowback.

The category of literary hoax forces us to ask what the boundary is between creative writing and deception. This is an ancient question, going back all the way to Plato, who flat-out denied that there was any distinction. A topic challenge about literary hoaxes would provide Lit SE the chance to indulge in both theoretical questions about the nature of fiction, and discussions of specific instances of literary hoaxes.

(Posted on 26 November 2020.)


Native Australian stories and traditions

Historically experienced significant discrimination.

An example of a book is The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia by Ronald and Catherine Berndt.

(Posted on 23 May 2022.)


Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān ibn al-ʿAbbās ibn Rāšid ibn Ḥammād

While he is only for a single series of accounts from a single travel, these writings of an early Islamic traveller have influenced western cultural perception of the area he traveled in a way that would be nigh unimaginable:

He described the Volga Bulgars and the Rus People, and many of the things he wrote about the Rus have been wholesale adopted as what many people think of as Viking today. In fact, in some areas, he is seen as one of the most neutral sources about old norse culture, as contemporary Christian texts about norse people in Viking depict those as raider, bloodthirsty monsters and irredeemable heathens.


The works of Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the early 20th century. His poetry combined a style inspired by English Romanticism with a willingness to address topics such as racism, religion, and Black heritage. He was praised by contemporaries for bringing Black literary excellence to a wider audience, yet also criticized for sounding too "white" in his use of language.

Cullen's works include the following collections:

  • Color (1925) (available on Project Gutenberg)
  • Copper Sun (1927)
  • The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929)
  • The Medea, and Some Poems (1935)
  • On These I Stand (1947, posthumous)

Many of his poems are now in the public domain and can be found online, for example at Poets.org.


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 Mod
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 8:37

Sequels to or retellings of Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) has often been adapted into children's books and films. It has also inspired sequels and retellings that sometimes put the original story into a new perspective.

These sequels and retellings include the following:

  • Daniel Defoe's lesser-known lesser-known sequel The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719).
  • Defoe's Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With his Vision of the Angelick World (1720), which "consists of a series of essays written in the voice of the character Robinson Crusoe" (Wikipedia).
  • The poems "Images à Crusoé" by Saint-John Perse (1909).
  • Derek Walcott's poem "The Castaway" (1965).
  • Michel Tournier's retelling Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday, or, The Other Island, 1967), which was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française. The themes explored in this novel include civilization versus nature, and the psychology of solitude.
  • Michel Tournier's adaptation of his 1967 novel for younger readers: Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage (1971).
  • Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Crusoe in England".
  • Derek Walcott's play Pantomime (1978).
  • J. M. Coetzee's novel Foe (1986), which is told from the perspective of a woman who landed on the same island as "Cruso" and which focuses on themes of language and power.
  • Patrick Chamoiseau's 2012 novel L'empreinte à Crusoé, which begins after Crusoe has already spent twenty years on the island.

This challenge would allow us to look at the Robinson Crusoe story from various points of view, including an post-colonialist angle, and to compare themes across works based on the same story.

The challenge would not include other examples of the robinsonade genre, such as The Swiss Family Robinson, or shipwreck stories generally.

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