Having read the current tour the "ask / don't ask" is short and vague. Now I would expect that since we are currently in private beta. However, to me a big definition on scope would be a debate between fiction and non-fiction.


  • Specific issues with literature
  • Real problems or questions that you’ve encountered

Don't Ask

  • Anything not directly related to literature
  • Questions that are primarily opinion-based
  • Questions with too many possible answers or that would require an extremely long answer

When asking Google your preferred method of research to define "Literature" the following result is returned:

  • written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.
  • books and writings published on a particular subject.
  • leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice.

Now, I feel our target audience is for the first definition, possibly the second, and almost certainly not the third. However, all of that is up for discussion, hence this post.

Even within the first definition one would expect to find non-fiction works. There are great stories to be told in the real world. The only argument I can see here is where to draw on lie what I am going to call "history" questions. Say I read a book on the (American) Revolutionary War, but want to know a bit more about Benedict Arnold, should I ask a question here or on History Stack Exchange?

The second definition is where I feel things get hazy. Things like scientific papers, encyclopedias, technical manuals, and similar items may be defined as literature. My thought is that technical questions should be asked on their respective site (i.e. Math SE, Physics SE, etc.). Newspapers and magazines might fall into this category as well.

The third definition is of least concern to me, because it is probably the easiest to conclude the pamphlet I received about new timeshare is Costa Rica is off-topic. Although, if you have arguments to support this category, I am willing to hear them

To tie it all back together: What types of non-fiction are on-topic here?

  • What do you guys think about magazines and newspapers? I don't think that's really the kind of literature we want here, but I would like to get more opinions. – Buffer Over Read Jan 19 '17 at 15:18
  • What has the definition of literature to do with fiction/non-fiction? I can easily print fiction stuff for each of those definition categories? – Helmar Jan 19 '17 at 19:54
  • Skooba, would you consider unaccepting the answer here? People have recently started re-discussing this old meta, and the consensus now seems to be shifting against the top answer. Admittedly consensus on meta is determined by votes, not acceptance, but it'd be nice not to have an answer pinned to the top if it's one that doesn't reflect current practice and that the current community doesn't agree with. Maybe unaccept at least until the voting stabilises again? – Rand al'Thor Apr 18 at 8:37

The first definition you have there is somewhat elitist and, if we used that, there'd be very few questions that were on topic here. The third definition is an alternate usage of "literature" and does not apply to this site at all.

I think the second version is closer but it's missing one thing...

My personal definition of literature is something that tells a story.

Whether that's a diary, novel, graphic novel, literary articles etc...

These non-fiction writings are still stories.

Here's where I think we should draw the line in regards to your question.

If a book doesn't have a narrative (e.g. a text book, technical book, encyclopedia), then it's not literature within our definition. Even going by your second definition, text books and encyclopedias would be out because they're not about one subject. Let's keep in mind the term "literary nonfiction".

Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as academic or technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not written to entertain based on writing style or florid prose.

So perhaps the "goal of entertaining" is an arguable definition... though that may occasionally be subjective.

Also, if someone is asking about the content of the book as it relates to history or within the book itself, that belongs here. If someone is asking for more information and the existence of a book is tangential, that belongs on History.

Will there be some stuff that we have to decide about on a case-by-case basis? Yes! But that's what meta is for. Getting a starting place for this discussion is important but we need to remain open to taking questions as they come rather than making a blanket decision off the bat.

So, before we decide that certain types of books are utterly off topic, think of scientific books written by Mary Roach and others... and history books written by a lot of notable people including Sarah Vowel.

  • Looks like a good definition. So for example, a travelogue that tells the story of someone's journey would be on topic, but a guidebook would be off-topic, a pop-science book designed to be read cover-to-cover explaining a topic like an unfolding story would be on topic, but a science textbook would be off topic, a book by an investiagitve reporter about how they investigated something would be on topic, but regular reportage wouldn't. Is that right? – user56reinstatemonica8 Feb 24 '17 at 15:58
  • @user568458 That's the idea, yes. – Catija Feb 24 '17 at 16:10
  • This answer epically misses the point. "Tells a story" leaves out much lyric poetry; it also leaves out experimental novels that don't tell a story, and drama that shows rather than tells. Also, many newspaper articles tell a story; are they on-topic? So the answer is both too narrow and too broad. Such an idiosyncratic definition fundamentally misstates what literature is, doing neither the concept nor this site justice. It does not represent the consensus of the most active users on this site. Almost any of the other answers would be preferable to this one. – verbose Apr 16 at 11:38

For anything that we can ask a literary question about, such questions are on topic for the purposes of site scope. There are lots of questions about literature which aren't literary questions, and lots of literary questions about things which conventional academic wisdom might not consider literature.

Defining what is and isn't literature by topic or format isn't going to be useful for us. Further refinement should be made as we encounter actual instances of questions which don't seem to fit the site well. Trying to pre-ban things we have no experience dealing with is just going to cause grief later.

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    Exactly, let's not discuss problems that aren't there. – Helmar Jan 20 '17 at 9:38
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    For anything that we can ask a literary question about - Can you say more about what you mean by "literary question"? – Kimball Jan 24 '17 at 0:49

The principle that should be applied is that the nature of the question determines if it is on-topic, not the nature of the work.

If the question is primarily about the choice of words, or the meaning of a passage, or the use of rhetorical devices, or the prose style, or how to interpret difficult or ambiguous parts of the text, or about the source of an allusion or quotation, and so on, then it is a literary question and belongs here, regardless of the nature of the text.

If the question is primarily about the (non-literary) subject matter of the text, then it is off topic.

For example, these questions about non-fictional works are on topic:


Revisiting this now that we've been established for a bit. I think the top-voted answer is mistaken in assuming that narrative is characteristic of literature. Lyric poetry or drama, for example, are literature but aren't narrative by nature. So why should the fact that a given work of non-fiction has a narrative be enough to qualify it as on-topic for this site? Many newspaper articles also tell a story, for example this one about how the Atlanta police detained the husband of a shooting victim as a suspect simply because he was Latino. The article has a narrative, but is it on-topic?

I would say no, because the past four years have shown that this site primarily uses "literature" in the same sense that it's used in academia: imaginative writing. When somebody says they study American literature or Renaissance literature, we assume they mean novels, short stories, plays, poetry, etc. So those are clearly on-topic. The bulk of our questions relate to those sorts of works. But those who study literature do also read non-fiction prose, and looking at what sort of non-fiction prose they read, and more importantly, why and how they read it, gives us some guidance in deciding what is on-topic here and why.

Students of literature do not read non-fiction prose for its factual content. A Renaissance specialist, for example, would not read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy to understand the nature and treatment of clinical depression. She would read it to understand how Burton in particular, and the Renaissance era in general, understood clinical depression. She would look at the type of evidence Burton marshals: personal anecdotes, medical treatises. She would examine his rhetorical strategies and use of language. She would note where he simply agrees with existing discourse around melancholia, and where he extends or refutes it. Her goal, then, is not to read Burton as an expository work, but to read it as literature. The literary work is seen as a cultural and linguistic artifact that reflects and reflects upon its historical context.

Catija's answer also mentions the "goal of entertaining" as a possible dividing line between on- and off-topic works. Insofar as that seems to take the author's intention in writing the work as definitive, that seems like a dicey idea. But it's on the right track in that it separates out the expository nature of the work from non-expository aspects. For example, Herodotus's Histories were not written with the goal of being non-expository or "entertaining." But when we read Herodotus today, we read him for non-expository reasons. We don't read him to understand the background and progress of the Greco-Persian wars, but to understand how he uses language to shape a new discipline, how his work would have been presented as oral performance, and how he intervened in the circumstances of his time. In other words, we read him as literature. The same is true of, say, Darwin's works on evolution. We read them not to understand evolutionary theory, but to understand what strategies Darwin used to present his theory to Victorian readers, and how those readers received his work.

I think the answers by BESW and Gareth are more on point, in that they focus on the sorts of questions that we entertain rather than the sorts of works as being determinative of whether or not a given question is on-topic on this site. It would be entirely fair, IMO, to say that while any question about imaginative literature is very likely on-topic for this site, any question about expository literature is on-topic if and only if the question is not about the factual content of the work at issue, but about its literary aspects. Those "literary aspects" would be its linguistic/rhetorical strategies, its role as a cultural artifact, the reception it received, and its place within the history of literature.


So, the first thing that springs to mind to me that should be strictly Off-topic is Advertising Media. By that I mean brochures, leaflets, flyers/posters, etc. whose sole purpose is to advertise/market a particular person, place, thing, or idea.

There might be caveats and exceptions, but I believe something like this just isn't what we're looking for.

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    I know asking downvotes to be explained is pointless but I really don't see why we want to discuss ad copy here. – Catija Jan 19 '17 at 20:33
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    @Catija Because pre-emptive strikes against content are unnecessary and potentially problematic. – BESW Jan 20 '17 at 9:51
  • Because it seems awfully biased to be targeting a single category this way. – Andrew Grimm Jan 21 '17 at 2:24

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