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The recent question What's wrong with the "beat literature" tag? has turned into a broader discussion that touches on general policy, i.e. whether we should have tags for literary movements and periods.

This would be distinct from genre tags, which the community decided not to use. This is also distinct from language tags, even though many literary movements are by no means "international" (e.g. the German Sturm und Drang or the Beat Generation in the USA), let alone global.

I think any proposed policy to use tags for literary movements and periods should consider the following questions:

  1. What questions should the tags apply to? Should such tags only be used for questions about a literary period or movement or for every work that belongs to a specific movement or period? The recent question Romanticism and knowledge/intellectualism is a question of the first type, whereas Why isn't Coleridge's line about trochees missing an unstressed syllable? does not even mention Romanticism. The second option requires a lot more retagging (and tag-related maintenance work later on) than the first option.
  2. Edge cases and/or debatable labels: In the case of the second option, how do we deal with edge cases or debatable labels? For example, is Finnegans Wake a modernist or a postmodern novel?
  3. Time lags: How do we deal with "movements" (for lack of a better word) that don't appear during the same period in different parts of the world? For example, the Renaissance started a lot later in England than in Italy, so do we create one tag for Renaissance or, for example, one per country, i.e. , etc.? Modernism seems to have lasted longer in South America than in Europe and North America. (Maybe there are simple answers to this, but they need to be defined and agreed upon.)
  4. Deciding between alternatives: What is the process for deciding between alternative names in cases where more than one choice is available? For example, should we use (a) English Renaissance literature, (b) Jacobethan literature, (c) Elizabethan literature + Jacobean literature or (D) something else?
  5. Tag limit: We have a limit of five tags per question. We often have (1) an author tag, (2) a tag for the work itself, or , (3) a language tag and (4) another tag such as meaning/symbolism/etc., so there isn't much room for additional tags. If the question is about more than one work, it gets more difficult. How do we deal with this if we decide to add a period/movement tag to every question where it is relevant (second option in the first list item above)?
  6. Your commitment: If you advocate using such tags, do you also commit to maintaining the tagging system? This includes writing tag wiki excerpts and checking that movement/period tags are used correctly. (In the beginning, this will also require adding tags to some of our 6000 existing questions.) I'm asking this because I see very few people contributing to tag wiki excerpts and I suspect many question askers don't know enough about the history of literature to use those tags correctly.

(There are other issues to consider, but the list is already quite long. For example, the community knows a lot more about "Western" literature than about, e.g. literatures from Asia and Africa, and we may wish to think about whether a new category of tags would strengthen this bias or the impression of bias.)

I am looking forward to well-thought-out suggestions.

PS: What I want to avoid with that long list of questions is that the community decides to use such tags without sufficient thought, starts implementing the policy and then realises, "Oh, what have we gotten ourselves into?"

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  • yes, we do indeed
    – verbose
    Mar 19, 2023 at 2:47

1 Answer 1

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Some thoughts on your questions:

What questions should the tags apply to?

I'd argue that they should apply to questions about literary movements more than to individual works unless the question is about the relation between a work and a movement. If we tagged everything about modernist authors with "modernism" the tag would bring back so many results as to be near-useless.

Edge cases and/or debatable labels

Personally, I feel this is a non-issue. If in doubt, more than one tag can be applied. I appreciate there's the five-tag limit (more on this later) but my feeling is that questions which are both edge-cases for movement tagging and look likely to break that limit are going to be very few and far between.

Time lags: How do we deal with "movements" (for lack of a better word) that don't appear during the same period in different parts of the world?

This is the one issue in using tags of this nature that I feel has the potential to be seriously problematic. I don't have a good answer to this other than to handwave and state that these terms are used - and used frequently - among academics and in the literature without confusion, largely because the precise meaning is often apparent from the context. I would hope the same principle would apply here. That said, I'm not so foolish as to believe that an impersonal online community and a tagging system that relies to some extent on delineated definitions is going to be as free and easy as discourse between peers. This is something that could get confusing, although likely more so for tag moderation than for users.

I'm also aware that I participate in the site mostly to ask and answer about English literature but that the site as a whole is considerably more multilingual than I am. Those questions just tend to float under my radar. So it's quite possible there's a bigger issue with this connected to internationality than I'm aware of.

Deciding between alternatives:

I'd simply repeat my answer to the edge cases question above: if there are serious issues with this, split the tags and use both. The ability to do things like this is part of what makes tagging so powerful.

Tag limit:

If we limit the use of movement tags to questions directly related to movements, I think this issue goes away. Indeed, how to tag questions of this kind is exactly the problem the tags are supposed to solve. Take the recent question I asked about the transition between modernism and the beats: I tagged it with history-of-literature which, if we keep using it as a catch-all, will become a meaningless swamp, but also with allen-ginsberg and william-carlos-williams partly because there are no other good tags to use for it. I could have used others as an example and in fact the question works fine without the example. So it could just be tagged with modernism and beat-literature.

Your commitment:

Since this is an issue I raised it'd be churlish of me not to offer some time toward populating and maintaining such tags if they're allowed :)

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