There have been several questions about beat literature recently which weren't tied to the work of individual authors like Kerouac or Ginsberg. The tags they were given - poetry and history of literature - really didn't seem to do the contents of the questions justice. So I added a beat literature tag and retroactively added it to some other questions that were related to specific authors.

The tag was then removed from all the questions by a moderator, so I felt it was better to discuss it here than to challenge that decision or re-add it.

Perhaps I should have raised it here first but I'm not sure why the tag wasn't deemed acceptable? While we haven't, so far, tagged things by period of movement these are a very common way for people who study literature to classify their work - they study modernism, or romanticism, or - ahem - beat literature. Why shouldn't we use them too? In fact, why shouldn't we go back and start retroactively tagging questions by movement?

In a related question, if we're not going to do this, then I think we do need to take some time to consider how we can tag questions of this kind instead. Having a question about the entire beat movement - which primarily consisted of novels and short stories - tagged with just "poetry" isn't really okay.

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    "via moderation" - well, by another user with edit privileges who happens to be a moderator. Mods are users too, and not everything a mod does is an Official Moderator Decision. Anyway, thanks for bringing this to meta, as it's worth discussing and coming to an agreement (I was trying to figure out yesterday if the two of you had already discussed this anywhere, in chat or comments).
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Feb 24 at 6:24
  • @Randal'Thor fair enough. I guess I meant to imply that since it was done by a mod, it's not really my place to challenge or reverse it, only to raise it here.
    – Matt Thrower Mod
    Feb 24 at 9:57

2 Answers 2


If I'm understanding Tsundoku's answer, the claim is: "since even scholars agree that defining periods and movements is challenging, we should not have tags that specify periods and movements." I disagree with both parts of that claim.

First, one can acknowledge that a term is imprecise while still relying on it as a very useful, commonly understood heuristic. Indeed, scholars do this all the time. I don't know any literary scholar who would say that we shouldn't use terms like "modernism" or "beat generation" to characterize movements that belong to the same time period and share some broad features. Yes, Vendler mentions "well-known difficulties of periodization", and then lists a few of those difficulties. But she doesn't go on to dismiss the usefulness of periodization entirely. Indeed, the rest of her essay argues that twentieth-century American poetry can and should be periodized. Her proposed division is as follows:

  • Modernism (Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams), through World War II
  • The Age of Auden, a brief 1950s post-war period
  • The age of the Beats / vernacular poem / Freudian poem, roughly the 1960s
  • The age of the poem of the decentered self (1970s onward)

Her essay having been written in the early 1990s, Vendler's schematic stops here.

It seems to me, then, that Vendler's essay undercuts rather than supports Tsundoku's claim. Vendler tries to come up with a periodization because despite the difficulties, it is useful to do so. Nowhere does she claim that we should not be using terms like "Elizabethan literature" or "Modernism". On the contrary, after rehearsing the problems with periodization for nearly two pages, she ends with: "temporal generalization is incorrigibly necessary to discussion" (p. 234, emphasis added).

Vendler doesn't even go on to make any arguments supporting this last statement, presumably because to any literary scholar, it would seem self-evident. University departments of (say) English hire based on periods and genres, and their course catalogs list offerings such as "The Victorian Novel", "Anglophone Postcolonial Literature in Africa", "The Poetry of the English Renaissance", and yes, "The Beat Generation". Such labels are assumed to be useful and accurate enough. This is not to say they are assumed to be infallible. They are heuristic.

Let's take an example. If an English professor describes herself as specializing in the Caroline poets, other scholars know exactly what she means. One of those others might ask her which poets she focuses on, the Metaphysicals or the Cavaliers. She might in turn respond that she's more interested in the distinction itself, using boundary-crossers like Carew and Marvell to understand and explain how and why such terms as "Metaphysical poetry" and "Cavalier poetry" are deployed. Her point is not that the labels are useless. Her point is that the labels give us a useful and necessary starting point to study both the poets to which those labels apply, and the labels themselves.

In other words: it is a perfectly valid literary question to ask (1) what label is appropriate for a period, a genre, or a movement, and (2) what the limits of that label are, both (a) as applied to a particular writer or work and (b) as a descriptor for the entire group of literary works thereunder subsumed. Such questions are complex; but "one should therefore eschew the use of those labels" is a supportable conclusion neither deductively (it doesn't logically follow from the premise), nor inductively (it's not borne out by what students of literature actually do in practice).

Second, the above answers the question regarding whether we should have tags that specify literary movements or periods. I don't actually see it as a drawback if, as Tsundoku says, adding such tags "would cause a lot of discussions about these tags". Um, the discussion is the point? We already have a tag that refers to a specific period. Besides, we have tags for genres like and that raise similar questions about the applicability of labels: does a novel in verse such as Eugene Onegin or The Golden Gate count as poetry? How about Shakespeare's plays? And we recently undertook a retagging effort to specify rather than after discussing precisely such label-applicability questions. (Personally I'd've gone with myself, but that's just me.)

I would even argue that the absence of tags about movements and periods potentially impoverishes our site. For example, if we have a question about, say, Charles Reade, and a Victorian specialist happens by the site, [st]hey? might be able to answer it; but it's not intuitive to search narrowly for Reade, who is no longer that well-known, whereas it's intuitive to say, "H'm, I wonder what questions this site has about Victorian literature". But right now, there isn't a way for someone to search for all the questions that have been asked about . So paradoxically, because we fear that such tags are naïve, we might lose out on expertise.

Is our tagging approach high-maintenance? More so than other sites? I think if a tag is useful, we should use it. And if people are using that tag, it's likely useful to them. I haven't been very involved with tag management here or elsewhere, so I'd appreciate an explanation of what makes our approach more high-maintenance. My sense, however, is that insofar as groupings by period and genre are the norm in literary studies, we should have those tags even if it makes more work for us as a community. It might be convenient to lump Sophocles together with Cavafy because both are , or in my preferred terminology ; but it makes more sense to say the former is and the latter or or . What counts as LGBT literature, and whether Cavafy operated within a distinctive tradition that can be so identified, or whether he can be retrospectively seen as pioneering such a tradition, or whether it's politically empowering but historically suspect to think of him as part of an LGBT tradition, are all open questions. But that's reason to keep the tag rather than burninate it.

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    Thank you for echoing and adding some academic support to my feelings on this. I should have read the essay myself but it felt like a pointless argument, one that I'd already lost. It seems self evident to me that it's crazy not use lables that academics in literature use on a daily basis. Doubly so because these are tags - if a problematic work or author falls between modernism and postmodernism well ... simply use both tags, no?!
    – Matt Thrower Mod
    Feb 24 at 23:29

There are two arguments against creating tags such as :

  1. We have a policy (that appears to be unwritten) against creating tags for periods and movements in the history of literature. Of course, policies can be questioned and changed. However, because of the difficulties inherent in defining periods and movements (see below), I am concerned that going down this road would cause a lot of discussions about these tags (and we already have a high-maintenance tagging approach).

  2. Defining periods and movements in literature is fraught with challenges. Let me just quote "Periodizing Modern American Poetry" by Helen Vendler (included in The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives, edited by Lawrence Besserman, 2014):

    Certain well-known difficulties of periodization apply equally to all literature and to all periods: the sheer difference of one literary work from another, even though both are written in the same period; the different evolution times of various genres; the time-lag between literatures, so that American literature written in the Victorian period might better be called Romantic literature; the ease of periodizing when the writing is done by a small court-circle in a small country versus the difficulty of periodizing when the writing is more diffused, and the country larger; the difficulty of working with past period labels at all when some are sovereign-centered ("Elizabethan Literature"), others genre-centered ("The Age of the Novel"), others named by analogy ("The Augustan Age", "The American Renaissance"), others named after a ruling idea ("Romanticism", "Reformation Literature"), and yet others named by a name that manifestly cannot last very long ("Modernism"). The philosophical idea behind periodization—that there is a Zeitgeist—is in itself a Romantic one.

    And the above quote is just for literature in English. There are many other literatures out there, where most of us don't know much about periods and movements. If it is challenging for scholars, how much more challenging will it be for us?

  • OK, well if that's the policy, that's the policy. I do feel quite strongly that the difficulties mentioned in the quote are overstated. "Modernism", for example, seems to have lasted pretty well as a term despite its manifest unsuitability 70 years after the movement ended and academics and writers seem to keep bandying these terms about without much confusion or difficulty. In addition, on this specific issue, "beat literature" is probably one of the best-defined of literary movements.
    – Matt Thrower Mod
    Feb 24 at 10:43
  • @MattThrower Remember that recent question asking whether a specific work was modernist or postmodernist? And questions about what made certain works from South America modernist? These are perfect illustrations of the challenges described in the quote. With regard to "beat literature": are you then suggesting to create such tags when the movement seems well defined and not when it isn't? (I hope not.)
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 24 at 10:46
  • "academics and writers seem to keep bandying these terms about without much confusion or difficulty". It becomes tiring to write at the start of every scholarly publication that periods and movements are not as clearly defined as those terms suggest. That's what gives the misleading impression that there are no challenges there.
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 24 at 10:49
  • I do remember the question - in fact I believe I wrote the accepted answer, which stated that if you treat movements as being bookended by time period, there's no great difficulty: Joyce was a modernist. Of course, I'm making no claims to be a literature academic but even without disclaimers I just don't see that people who move in these fields and use these terms have much difficulty making themselves understood.
    – Matt Thrower Mod
    Feb 24 at 10:54
  • @MattThrower The accepted answer says that Finnegans Wake is postmodernist, whereas you said it was modernist.
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 24 at 11:02
  • Oh yes, I recall now - someone accepted my answer and then I encouraged them to change it. I take your point, but mine is that among academics, the terms are used almost exclusively to refer to historical periods. I was listening to a lecture on Lolita by a Joyce expert just the other week, and he described his speciality as "high modernism". While we might struggle to categorise individual works - like Finnegan's Wake, although I'd add that's a very extreme and rare example - categorising movements themselves is much less difficult.
    – Matt Thrower Mod
    Feb 24 at 11:14
  • But let's end it there. It's an interesting discussion but it seems we're not going to agree and you're the mod. So, case closed rather than us keep arguing.
    – Matt Thrower Mod
    Feb 24 at 11:15

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