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I voted to close the Book about Tantric Sex Written by an Australian Couple that uses the terms 'Lingam' and 'Yoni' on the grounds that the work in question did not qualify as literature within the scope defined in the help center:

We interpret ‘literature’ in a broad sense, including written, spoken and sung works, in all genres, languages and forms: poetry, plays, stories, novels, lyrics, comic books, essays, belles-lettres, and so on.

As written, the scope seems to refers to imaginative literature. The term "literature" is not defined as encompassing any and every verbal production. Rather, it specifies works of a type that one could broadly categorize as "literary". This specification does not appear to include, say, textbooks, newspaper articles, or a boy band fan blog.

The meta question What types of non-fiction are on topic? both broadens and clarifies that scope. The top rated answer there, by BESW, says:

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.

In another well-received answer, Gareth Rees writes:

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.

On the basis of the preceding, it seems that a question asking merely for an identification of a work that does not have any pretensions to being literary in its import would be off-topic. I'm using "literary" here in the same sense that BESW and Gareth do in the quoted portions above. If I ask for a particular story, poem, comic, etc. to be identified, well, that's in scope. If I ask about the use of language or rhetoric within a book about tantra, that's in scope. But should a question like "what is this tantra book?" be treated as in scope, absent any evidence that the book in question lends itself to literary discussion?

I have the same issue with Identify a cookbook with a Deputy preparing a whole camel. The question asks for the identification of a cookbook based on a photograph (with no indication where the photograph is from), and the only answer says (correctly) that the photograph is a frame from a movie. Is that within scope?

Valorum commented upon my close vote on the tantra book question that the book falls under the OED definition of literature as "books and writings published on a particular subject". But if we go by that definition, then any about any book on any subject is in scope here, because the book is literature on a particular subject: tantra, cookery, jumping rope, cable TV, spiders, quantum physics ... is that what we want?

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There's always been a tension around these kinds of questions which is not straightforward to resolve. As moderators, we aspire to creating hard rules as to what is on- and off-topic to make it easier to guide users and to make decisions on individual questions. However, like a lot of arts-based subjects, this puts us in a bit of a bind.

It's very tempting to simply state that we don't take questions on works of non-fiction, which would seem to solve a lot of problems. I know that early on in this site there was a discussion about the value of literary analysis of works of non-fiction which and the consensus was that there was value - an interpretation that I, personally, don't agree with. My recollection is that the consensus very much included textbooks, newspaper articles, and boy band fan blogs. However, even if we leave that contention aside, disallowing questions on non-fiction means no discussion of academic work around literary theory and the like, which feels like a huge omission.

So if we can't disallow questions about non-fiction, what hard criteria can we find to draw the line in the sand that disallows sex guides and cookbooks? We could look at those (and other) categories of book and specifically disallow those that we don't want, but we immediately run into trouble over what is, or is not, a sex guide or a cookbook. There is, for example, a wholly fictional cookery book called A Traveler's Guide to The Lucky Gryphon: Recipes & Regalings. I doubt it's a volume of much literary merit, but can we really exclude it because we don't want cookbooks? You could make a similar argument about sex guides and the Kama Sutra.

If we start using criteria like "imaginative" or "literary" then we're on a similar slippery slope, which - however much I'd love these to be criteria for inclusion in this community - is equally hard to define and smacks badly of elitism. There is value to be had in dissecting all but the most tawdry pulp fiction, even if that value is chiefly helping people toward better reading.

Which essentially leaves us with the 1964 supreme court's porn definition, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced... [b]ut I know it when I see it ...". I would agree the questions highlighted in this meta-question should be off-topic and I would agree to close them. The wider question is, are we happy to proceed using this rather flimsy definition of what belongs and essentially leaving it up to the whims of individual moderators?

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    "essentially leaving it up to the whims of individual moderators" - if we interpret this to mean content moderators (e.g. anyone who can VTC) rather than diamond moderators, it's not so bad. It takes five people to actually close or reopen a question as off-topic, so we can leave it to the collective whims of the high-rep community, and in this way a sort of de facto consensus may be formed over time.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 3 at 16:05
  • It's a huge leap to saying "something is not off-topic solely by virtue of its being about non-fiction" to saying "therefore, we cannot disqualify any identification question about things that are clearly non-literary."
    – verbose
    Apr 24 at 22:04
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Both the answers provided so far seem unpersuasive to me. To take each in turn:

Matt's answer relies on the following claim: because it's difficult to draw hard and fast lines around the proper objects of literary analysis, it's difficult to rule out any sort of identification question. I disagree with both parts of this claim.

Granted that we can't say in broad terms that nonfiction is out of scope for us. Students of literature do read, for example, Montaigne's essays or Plato's Symposium, and discuss them as imaginative works even though they aren't intended as fiction. But the important qualifier here is discuss them as imaginative works. When we read nonfiction for the purposes of literary analysis, we don't read it for its discursive or expository content. We don't read, say, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy to gain factual information about what we would now call depression. We read it to understand Burton's mind and art, and to place the work within its cultural context.

The same is not true of contemporary sex manuals. Fifty or a hundred years from now a scholar might be moved to analyze, say, Tantric Secrets for Men in the context of studying depictions of oriental traditions in turn-of-the-millennium sexual practice handbooks. But in the present day, absent any such contextual framing, we would not allow questions merely about the content of such a handbook. If someone were to ask, For the position described on page 52 of Tantric Secrets for Men, where should my right foot go?, we'd close it as off-topic. We would not say, "well, Tantric Secrets for Men is a written work, and so a question about something inside the work should be allowed, because where do we draw the line?"

Matt also mentions allowing questions about boy band fan blogs, newspaper articles, etc. But we said we would allow questions about the literary aspects of those works, such as the rhetorical devices used in them; not that we would answer any and every question about them simply because they're written works. If someone posts a few sentences from such a blog and asks about the literary devices therein, that's fine. But we wouldn't say that a question directly about the content of the blog is on-topic: Blog says this band member got married for the first time in 2021, I thought he was briefly married in 2018? is not a question we would entertain.

The above reasoning provides us the clear line Matt claims cannot be drawn. We wouldn't say a question like I read [yadda yadda] on a blog about BTS a couple of years ago, please help me remember which blog it was is on topic as an identification question simply because the blog is a written work. We'd say that question isn't about literature as we're using the term here. Likewise, we shouldn't allow a question asking us to identify a tantric sex manual. It's not about literature as we're using the term here. While we define "literature" broadly, we do not mean it to encompass "any printed work." We specifically mean imaginative literature. Why should we not say, then, that works that do not qualify as imaginative literature are outside our scope for identification requests?

Matt's answer also asks whether by disallowing identification questions about a cookbook, we would disallow an identification question about Lucky Gryphon. The former is not by default a literary work; the latter is clearly a work of the imagination. Likewise, disallowing an identification question about a sex manual does not mean we disallow questions about the Kama Sutra, which we discuss for the same reason we discuss the Symposium or Montaigne's essays. So I belive that argument is a straw man.

Turning now to Skooba's answer, his claim is: an unknown written work might indeed turn out to be a literary work, and so we should allow any identification question. I agree with Skooba's assumption that we can make some distinction between literary and non-literary works. I agree also that generally speaking, we need to be generous rather than exclusionary.

That said, I think that the distinction between literary and non-literary can and does provide boundaries for our scope. I don't believe that because "we have no genre scope," we have to allow any identification question. As I've argued above, even though we don't restrict ourselves to a specific genre, we have scope. Our scope encompasses questions about (1) works of imaginative literature and (2) literary aspects of non-literary works. In practice, we clearly understand that scope. I doubt any regular of this site would claim that the content-based example questions about Tantric Secrets or the boy band blog are, or ought to be, on topic for us. And "we should restrict questions to our scope" is not a controversial or élitist claim.

Where Skooba and I differ most clearly is in what this scope means for identification questions. He thinks we should assume that any identification question is potentially about a literary work. I do not believe it's too high a burden for it to be incumbent upon the asker to make that clear. If the question is about a short story or poem, it's clear already. If the question is about a cookbook or a sex manual, why shouldn't we assume it's off-topic? We tell people who ask identification questions to provide details about where they came across the work. That alone should be sufficient to make it clear whether the work is in scope or not. For works in scope, the asker can and should make specify: "this is a 17th C. cookbook," or "this is a fictional sex manual." If they do not provide that information, we should indeed treat the question as out of scope. I don't think it's ungenerous to say that someone asking a question about a non-literary work should make clear why that question belongs here.

To sum up: We can indeed define imaginative literature: works that we read non-discursively—not for their factual content, but to study and enjoy as products of an individual or cultural imagination. We focus on questions about imaginative literature. Yes, we allow questions about non-literary works. But we recognize and make distinctions between what we might broadly call literary and non-literary questions about those works. A literary question about those works would involve some sort of cultural context or rhetorical analysis. An identification question for a non-literary work is not a question about literature as that word is used on this site, because it is not asking about the literary aspects of that work. Absent evidence from the asker that the question is on-topic, we should close such questions.

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I am in favor of allowing all identification questions 1.

Identification questions are really an almost separate entity when it comes to scope. Whatever rules we apply to other types of questions can be difficult to apply. In part because we cannot fully know what type of work the target of identification is until has been successfully identified. Maybe the part we remember about "maths and a fractal" is actually the Jurassic Park novel, maybe the recipe we remember was actually part of spell book?

Since we have no genre scope (e.g., Science Fiction and Fantasy), and we allow scholastic questions on fiction and non-fiction alike, there should no reason why asking to identify any work is off-topic. To do otherwise seems exclusionary and elitist, which this site has wrestled with before.

Given that Literature is small site with a fairly large scope and target audience we should be as welcoming as we can. If we have a slew of low quality posts we should as community to improve (or remove) them, but looking at the list of questions only a few have a negative score. If you do not like identification questions at all, you can simply ignore the tag to allow better access to the types of questions you want to ask, answer, or read.

1 - so long as it literature (i.e. any written work) and not a movie, video game, or "object identification".

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  • Your footnote makes this answer essentially dodge the main question. What is "literature" and what are "things that would [be] wholly off-topic to begin with" - and isn't that kind of the point? If cookbooks are wholly off-topic to begin with, then this would mean making cookbook ID off-topic, but I don't think that's what you are arguing here?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 5 at 16:28
  • @Randal'Thor I mean things that are not in a written medium at all. I hesitated to say"music/songs" because we've allowed lyric questions based on them being a form poetry. I meant more like we won't identify objects (tools, cars, planes, animals etc.). I added the footnote because I knew someone would be pedantic and say "ALL identification... what's this bird I saw in my garden".
    – Skooba
    Jan 5 at 21:55
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    I'm not against the principle of this answer (it seems to be what we do for quote-source, allowing the IDing of quotes from any kind of even non-literary source that we wouldn't allow other types of questions about), but you need to explain better where you're proposing to draw the line, otherwise the footnote takes us straight back to square 1.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 6 at 10:44
  • (1) We don't define literature solely as written work. We allow questions about works in the oral tradition. (2) Would the screenplay of a movie be on-topic? If someone asks "l read this movie screenplay, here is what I remember, which movie screenplay is this?"—would that belong here? That seems like an easy way to get around MTV SE's ban on identification requests.
    – verbose
    Apr 24 at 22:03
  • @verbose I am scrolling through meta because I think there is an answer to to screenplays being on-topic, however all I can find at the moment is this post about novelizations which are considered on-topic. So to your point on the "loophole" about MTV's ban on ID requests, I think it probably already exists with novelizations (just swap the word screenplay with ) novelization.
    – Skooba
    Apr 25 at 16:35

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