Having read the current tour the "ask / don't ask" is short an 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.SE?

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 arguements 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?

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    The help centre will be updated as the site grows and we get a clearer idea of what our scope actually is. – Rand al'Thor Jan 19 '17 at 13:57
  • @Randal'Thor I figure as much, but always good to have an open discussion point documented. I have seen in my short (and narrow) time here a lot of "policy" gets decided in chat and is subsequently forgotten about. – Skooba Jan 19 '17 at 14:01
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    Policy never gets decided in chat. That's what meta is for ;-) – Rand al'Thor Jan 19 '17 at 14:03
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    @Randal'Thor See, now I was told Meta is where good ideas go to die :-P – Skooba Jan 19 '17 at 14:06
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    @Skooba any site that's deciding things in chat without a meta discussion to at the very least document what's going on is NOT following the standard procedure for such things – DForck42 Jan 19 '17 at 14:10
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    @Skooba You don't want to believe everything you hear ... – Rand al'Thor Jan 19 '17 at 14:23
  • 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

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

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:


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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