Buckle up, this is gonna be a journey.

We're pretty early into the site's existence. Things are rolling along nicely. We're hanging around a whopping 45 questions a day, and we've got the rocky foundations of a meta going. But we're going to run face-first into a deep, structural problem with the site. Even if we can't "see it a mile off," we sure can feel it, and I know I'm not the only one.

Just a few hours ago (I swear!), I decided to mosey on over to the Area 51 page for this site's commitment. I was looking for something very specific: self-identified experts. And you know something? There aren't many of them. In the first ten pages, there is one self-identified expert, and two academic/research-level committed users. Throw Dunning-Krugerism on top of that, and that doesn't leave very many people with the sort of thorough, extensive literary knowledge that's going to make a site like this thrive. (I myself should probably have selected "beginner" instead of "avid enthusaist.")

Big shock, right? We're a bunch of lit enthusiasts! Not many of us have really spent a huge amount of time and energy studying this stuff, and the journey from literature enthusiast to literature expert is long. (And that's okay!-- more on this later.)

Here's the problem: Stack Exchange isn't made for enthusiasts. All across Stack Exchange, sites are discussing what makes a question an "expert" question. Blender, Economics, English, Pets, Christianity, Islam... (ex-Programmers even removed "expert" from their site description.) And hey, guess what Stack Exchange used to say about new sites?

You wouldn’t shout out a calculus question in a football stadium, right? You’d go to the math department of a university. That’s why instead of allowing questions on any topic, we have brought together separate communities of experts on very specific topics. We don’t open a site until we’re sure there’s a critical mass of experts ready to participate.

Even though Stack Exchange no longer says that, "Literature" Stack Exchange isn't really made for us. The word Literature implies expert discourse, all by its lonesome. Stack Exchange is designed with this principle in mind: "by experts, for experts," to hold expert-level discourse. That was the slogan. Although SE, nearly everywhere, no longer does what it was explicitly designed to do, and SE has dialed back on the "experts" phrasing, the design of the Stack still reflects it.

So I'm going to draw a crude, ugly false-dichotomy-circle in neon yellow chalk around who's the audience of this-here-site. But bear with me, because it's actually a spectrum, and there are most certainly two ends to it. Or four. A square? (Whatever.) On the one side, we have us. The current users of this site. On the other side, we have experts. These are not the current users of this site.

On the one side, the site can appeal to us, the current users, directly. On the other side, the site can appeal to real experts. We're not these experts (and frankly, I think we're all feeling a little in over our heads); however, we can try to raise discourse to an expert level, and set a tone where those experts will be a welcome gift.

Here's the thing. I come from Puzzling. Long, long ago, when I was far more naively idealistic, and with the support of not-too-many-but-not-zero-people, I tried really, really hard (score: +30/-31) to guide the site toward expert-level discussion of how to approach puzzles, how to design them, what goes on in someone's mind, how to make them appealing... you name it. At the time, my feelings were this: if we couldn't be an expert site, the site shouldn't exist. We were deeply confused about what we wanted the site to be.

My feelings have changed slightly, and anyone who's seen the site knows that a site by experts for experts is not what we got. I'm not complaining - this doesn't make the site bad, just different. Alright, fine, it's still a site that purports to be for experts while actually being for enthusiasts, but when it comes to puzzles and games, that's not really a problem. (Plus, with puzzles, the threshold to find expertise is much lower; we made our own experts.)

But here, it's a problem. Literature, literary thinking, and literary critique are hard. Harder than you or I think. All the discussions around "what constitutes literature?" exemplify this in droves. All the discussions treating literary lenses like opinions and analysis in a "you-decide" sort of way exemplify this. Most of us have no training in any sort of formal critical analysis, or are at least unpracticed, struggle to keep it straight in our heads, and are scooting along with our butts on the floor trying to answer questions of broad depth and meaning.

That includes me. There's no way I'm an exception here. (I'm 20, I'm still at an age where spending a few weeks on a problem is considered "a very long time.")

But we can't really put on a facade of a site that's by experts, for experts if we can't provide the sort of high-quality, detailed answers that an "expert" site needs to be built upon. So the decision is this: do we, or do we not, want to be a site for literature experts? You and I might not be these experts, but if we work at it, we can raise the discourse to expert level, pushing people to make more detailed, thorough, and insightful answers - and in the future, we might reach the level of "expert." Or we could... not. And that's okay, too.

We're not the only site with this problem, either. I'm only going to touch on it briefly, because that's its own thorny issue, but Worldbuilding has faced a similar problem. There's a common opinion that Worldbuilding became much more of a website for amateur ("armchair") speculation, rather than a site about professional consideration of the issues of worldbuilding. Somewhere down the line, Worldbuilding forgot about experts-first site building, and that's a very similar place to where we're potentially headed. The end result is that Worldbuilding does not seem to be performing its surface-level function: allowing real worldbuilding experts to help each other build worlds. (Be it known that I think this is a structural issue with the way Stack Exchange launches sites at all, more than it is reflective of our particular case.)

This is an issue that touches every single thing the site does, and will do, from the time it was launched until the heat death of the universe. How we vote, how we post, what we close, what we keep, whether poetry or music or the structure of music and games or polycultural questions or oral tradition are on topic - all these things are determined by the sort of site we want to be. Want, examples? Here, have, a, few, examples, of, scope, questions. Each decidable based almost solely on this philosophical question. (There's a deeper issue here, where many people don't seem to clearly grasp what it is literary analysts actually do and study, but that's a problem for another time.)

I'm not going to say which one is better or worse. But as I view it, we have two options:

  • We can keep the name Literature Stack Exchange, and do our best to elevate the level of discourse to the heights we'd hope to see from experts in the field. You and I are not the experts this version needs, but we can work and work hard to raise the level of discourse up to this point.
  • We can rename the site to something like Books SE for discussion of bound printed matter, keep all the poetry and lyrics, and occasionally, maybe field a literary question, acknowledging that it's being answered from the perspective of enthusiasts.

But (here comes the false dichotomy; ready? seat-belts buckled?) we can't do both. If we stick with "Books," even in spirit, we're going to lose the experts at critical analysis. (And I'm quite serious about changing the name of the site, don't get me wrong.)

We do need to make a rough decision, though, about where in this we want to lie. This isn't a straightforward issue, but it definitely is pressing, and for the health of the site from here on out, it needs to be handled before it crystallizes beneath our feet.

  • 4
    And if we're going to rename, it seems like it should be before the public beta. Personally, I barely feel qualified to ask questions here, so there's no way I'm going to answer anything.
    – amaranth
    Jan 24 '17 at 20:26
  • 4
    I will say this much: Worldbuilding can still function as a site for those seriously building worlds. I've been working on one seriously for a couple months, and asked a series of questions that got a lot of attention. The only issue is that it's easy to drown out questions like that, especially when you aren't consciously aware of the problem. Whatever direction we go in on Literature, I think the expert questions - if they're asked - will have a home. They'll just be lost. And that's not great.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 24 '17 at 20:35
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    "every single thing the site does, and will do, from the time it was launched until the heat death of the universe" - I must say, you're very optimistic about how long Stack Exchange will survive.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 24 '17 at 22:25
  • 2
    ssssshhhh, relax, BREATH.
    – DForck42
    Jan 24 '17 at 22:50
  • 2
    This question could benefit from an executive summary. Great question, otherwise.
    – DVK
    Jan 24 '17 at 23:53
  • 3
    I've been to sites for experts. They're BORING. I don't want such a site.
    – b_jonas
    Jan 26 '17 at 14:33

This is the . . . eleventh time I've been in a Stack Exchange site from its beginnings in private beta or before, over two and a half years. And let me say this: what you've brought up is something that they've all faced, in some form or another, as they came into this world kicking and screaming along with a bunch of us who had no clue where we were going. I've seen Law, Mythology, Engineering, Latin Language, and a few others try to overcome the hurdle and make it across in decent shape, and Open Science trip and fall flat on its face because it couldn't make the jump.

I'm wracking my brain for an exact source for who said the following, but in lieu of that, here's a paraphrasing of what a wise person - it might have been Shog9 - once said:

Stack Exchange is a bunch of programmers coding and then cooking and gardening and writing and playing video games.

The very format of Stack Exchange, the fact that it's on the Internet, caters to those who use computers every day, and the best group for that are the programmers. They'll be coding and debugging and compiling and then they hit a bug, and suddenly the Internet beckons, and it leads them to a quick solution. So they're very likely to come across Stack Exchange in the first place1, and even more likely than others to stay there.

Contrast them to, say, the guys at This Old House, or at the mechanic's, or at a restaurant, or in a college math department. These folks are much less likely to find out about Stack Exchange in the first place. This means that, given that a huge fraction of Stack Exchange users are programmers, new sites are rapidly populated by those who are only enthusiasts in foo, and so foo Stack Exchange can very easily become led by them. On most sites I participate on, I'm one of them (lest you think that I'm shaking my finger at you all).

The point is, it's very, very hard to get a number of self-described "experts" on any new Stack Exchange site. Impossible? Oh, not by any means. But you're never going to have a beta site populated just by said experts. I'll stake my account on that. So let's get over the idea that we're ever going to have any significant number of them on Literature Stack Exchange.

Okay, but is this a good thing?

Out of those eleven private betas I've been in, exactly one has failed, and that was Open Science. That one had a complicated start, to say the least, and perhaps anyone else who was there might agree with me that it may actually have suffered from a lack of . . . well, enough people who knew a significant amount about the subject. But the others are still going strong, last time I checked.

From a certain perspective, I want to ask why that's the case. Maybe Robert Cartaino can give you a better answer, but my view is that they, as a whole, understood what it took me a while to figure out: sites grow, and their users do, too.

I've asked some stupid questions in my time on Stack Exchange. Naïve, ignorant, foolish - call them what you will. Today, I like to think that the questions I ask are just a bit less stupid. I've learned, from asking and answering and trying and failing and getting back up and falling on my bum and asking again. My questions on Astronomy today are probably better than the ones I asked 30 months ago (in my view).

I'm no expert - in anything (yet). And I think I'm not alone. But I'm closer to getting to the point where I can ask intelligent questions in a bunch of areas, and, once in a while, answer some. The same goes for a lot of other people. By engaging in the kind of discourse we do on Stack Exchange, we'll learn how to be better at literary analysis, just by trying and failing.

What I'm saying is that we should step back for a second and let the site evolve how it will. We are going to ask stupid questions and ask stupid answers, because we don't know everything, and we never will. But we'll all get better, and you know what? Once we get to the point where we've become skilled enough to answer these questions a little bit like experts, I can sit down, exhale, and think that we've done what we needed to do.

Why Worldbuilding has a few problems, and why Literature likely won't.

Disclaimer: Worldbuilding moderator here.

You've identified what I think the main problem is - and has been - on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange for a while, namely, that everyone has an opinion on everything and therefore a variety of questions are asked and answered like there's no tomorrow (if I can paraphrase you like that). That is an issue, and one that we've tried to fix in a few different ways, such as encouraging downvoting and trying to get more rigorous responses to certain questions.

My best explanation is that information is all around us, and yet it's the wrong kind of information. There are so many popular articles around us on a bazillion topics - science, history, linguistics, and so on. People can peruse some of those, and then when a question on that subject comes up, they try to answer it. Boom! You get problems, because folks aren't conscious of what they don't know.

I don't think we're going to see the same issues here. If you can piece together a half-decent answer to a question on Literature, you've at least read the book in full, in all likelihood. Therefore, you've looked at the information in some sort of context, rather than just a few misrepresented points on an article in Popular Science. Now, you may not have understood the material in the same way someone trained in literary analysis might. However, you're a good portion of the way there, because you've read the actual thing, not just a summary of it.

There's no guarantee that people can't write answers without having read the whole book or poem or piece of literature. However, it's a lot harder to write a half-decent answer if you haven't. A lot harder.

1 Granted, this is because Stack Overflow is so popular, but still, you get the idea.

  • I'd agree with the votes here. This is likely the best answer of all those posted; it hits more firmly to the point. (I think the other answers have offered valuable insight, too, don't get me wrong.)
    – user80
    Jan 29 '17 at 8:17
  • I don't know about here, but on scifi.SE, several people write good answers without having read or watched the source material.
    – amaranth
    Jan 31 '17 at 2:34
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    @amaranth I would be careful of drawing too many parallels with SFF, even if we both share some of the same userbase. The two sites differ in a few ways, including details of scope and the precise kind of answers we want. Literary analysis is being emphasized here, and it's awfully hard to do that without reading the book in the first place. I'll agree that there are some edge cases, but they're likely rare.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 31 '17 at 2:37
  • Yeah, I can seriously vouch for Open Science. It was the lack of experts able to ask quality questions that effectively brought the site down.
    – Zizouz212
    Jan 31 '17 at 21:11
  • Just cause this question got attention again, here are my thoughts about Worldbuilding. In my opinion, the problem with Worldbuilding isn't a lack of experts but a lack of imagination. Answers tend to be restricted to tired tropes of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Which is a shame, because those genres should be about innovation, rather than just regurgitating endless variations of Tolkien.
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 18:24

What is an expert?

First off, let's acknowledge our weaknesses. We, the current userbase of this site, are not 'experts' - in the sense that (as far as I know) none of us are literature professors, or even have degrees in literature; none of us have jobs in libraries; none of us are professionally involved with literature. But you know what? That doesn't mean we can't be experts.

An expert, according to Google, is "a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area". According to Malcolm Gladwell, it's a person with 10,000 hours of practice. Well, I must have spent more than 10,000 hours of my life reading, and I'm sure I'm not the only one here who has. We all have different knowledge bases and skill sets, but we do have knowledge about literature, and skill in discussing and writing about it. Let's not knock ourselves here.

What does Stack Exchange want from experts?

You've talked a lot about Stack Exchange attracting experts, but it seems to me that what it really sells itself on is expert answers. "Expert" as an adjective, not as a noun. As usual on Stack Exchange, it's the content that matters, rather than the people.

Consider the following two possible answers to the same question:

  • Yes, Svidrigailov definitely committed murder in Crime and Punishment. I know this because I have spent years studying the novel and written a dissertation and two books on it.

    -- Prof. A. N. Expert, BA MA PhD etc

  • Yes, Svidrigailov definitely committed murder in Crime and Punishment. We can deduce this from a careful analysis of the text, as follows. In Chapter 17, Svidrigailov says: [...] Furthermore, it stands to reason from his behaviour in Chapter 23 that [...] There have also been some academic papers written on this issue. One of them argues that [...] because [...]

    -- user2873, Literature SE

You don't need me to tell you which of those two answers we'd rather see here.

Why am I saying all this? Because it shows that what matters is the quality of answers, not who posts them. Again, let's not knock ourselves. We're perfectly capable of conducting critical analysis of literary texts ourselves, and writing up well-reasoned conclusions thoughtfully and at length. We don't need 'experts' to help us - we can become our own experts!

You mentioned Puzzling SE. Well, you and I have both seen how that site has changed and grown over the years, and - as you say - how it's gathered its own 'home grown' experts. That's not a Puzzling-specific phenomenon. We can all be experts, if we're willing to put in the time and effort and learn from our peers. That's not to say we are experts at this stage, or that we'll ever be as knowledgeable as an average literature professor. Let's face it, we are basically enthusiasts with no real qualifications, and we're going to muck up a lot. But we can get much better at this.

Of course, anyone who is a professional or 'expert' will be more than welcome to participate here! Nobody will be happier than me to see an actual literature professor become an active user here, but we can't rely on that ever happening. I suspect most Stack Exchange sites, except perhaps those very specifically geared towards programmers and other computer people, are like this: the occasional professional whom people can ooh and aah over, but mostly enthusiasts producing expert content.

We might not be the heroes Literature SE deserves, but we're the heroes it needs right now.

The site is at an early stage. We're still finding our feet. But I've been mightily impressed with some of the content here so far - long, well-thought-out essays with detailed deconstructions and analyses. That stuff gets upvotes. That's how it should be. We're already producing 'expert' content - let's just keep on going in a similar vein.

Of course, this is not to say the content so far is the best it could be. Most of us are relatively inexperienced, and there's always room for improvement. Probably none of the posts we have so far match up to the standards we might expect from professional literary critics, but we have all the time in the world to make that improvement.

As long as we keep our minds open, and are willing to accept criticism and learn from each other, we can keep on improving forever. We might not be experts now; we might never become professionals; but gosh darn it if we can't become experts right here, producing expert content for this very site. You don't necessarily need expert people to create expert content.

In fact, the very idea of attracting expert people here may be a bit pie-in-the-sky anyway. Imagine you were a literature professor - would you want to spend your spare time frittering around on Stack Exchange answering people's questions about literature in a way that fits into this company's Q&A system? Probably not. Like I said way back on Area 51:

There aren't enough literature professors on the internet to keep an entire Stack Exchange site running. We need to appeal to casual readers as well.

I'll be honest: when I said that, I was envisaging the as-yet-uncreated Literature SE to be a sort of books-only all-genre version of SFF. But even though that's not the direction it seems to be heading in (and I'm personally very happy about that - most of my favourite posts on SFF have been basically literary analysis, rather than quotes and links which could be Googled up by anyone), my point still stands. Fortunately, though, it doesn't really matter: with enough determination, open-mindedness, and will to succeed, we can do all that's needed our very own selves.

TL;DR: let's be enthusiasts producing expert content, and create our very own community of experts.

  • I came to this question fully disagreeing with your answer's conclusion. Then I read your answer, recognized myself in the mirror (including as SFF user, which is arguably my main "expert" account except for my real one, on SO, where i'm actually an expert doing things for a living), and this answer made me change my mind. Good job!
    – DVK
    Jan 25 '17 at 0:34
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    I'm not sure if I agree with this or not, because I'm very distracted by the straw men and confusion. I don't think anybody is saying that "I'm an expert, believe me" is something we'll tolerate.
    – BESW
    Jan 25 '17 at 10:36
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    @BESW I deliberately exaggerated that example, in order to make the point that SE is about expert content, not necessarily expert people. The latter might help to provide the former, but they're not necessary or indeed sufficient. (Robert made the same point in a now-deleted answer here.)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 13:28
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    I don't necessarily disagree with your conclusions, I do disagree with the method, in that this seems to take terms to their most extreme in order to demonstrate a contrary result. I think there are good reasons we can do what you say here, but I'm not sure they're clearly elucidated.
    – user80
    Jan 25 '17 at 17:07
  • @DVK It may not look much like it, but this was actually a "stream of consciousness" type answer. I pretty much convinced myself of all this during the course of typing it. Maybe that's why it was so persuasive!
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 17:13

While I don't think this site needs to aim to become the Math Overflow or CS Theory of literature, it's good to have this discussion because I've seen what can happen to an analogous site when there's not enough expert knowledge to go around.

I use "expert knowledge" instead of "experts" deliberately. Someone can have expert knowledge without actually being an acknowledged expert. I agree with the sentiment expressed in other answers here: I don't care if the person who answers my question is a world-famous professor of literature or a janitor who reads a lot while waiting for the floors to dry, as long as the answer is composed at an expert level.

The majority of my network-wide SE reputation comes from my account on Anime and Manga, so Anime and Manga is my home site insofar as I have one. I also spend a fair amount of time lurking on Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and frankly much of the content I see there is higher quality than what we have on Anime and Manga.

I finally realized that Sci-Fi and Fantasy has better content than Anime and Manga because they have a few big, complex universes—Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, and DC and Marvel Comics—that everyone concentrates all the attention on. Anime and Manga has a gap between the works that hardcore fans like and more populist, accessible stuff, so it's developed these weird little sub-communities around a few series, with a long tail of questions about more obscure shows that never get answered or get lazy one-line wiki copy-and-paste answers.

Some of these questions are very interesting and deep, and every so often, one of them gets an answer which is very interesting and deep. Some of it even reaches what I'd like to see Literature move towards: insightful commentary on symbolism, intertextuality, historical and cultural context, story structure, and character motivation. As one example I'll point you towards About the artworks used in the Elfen Lied opening scenes (contains nudity), which explains how the images from the opening scenes of a not-very-good sci-fi action anime are actually references to paintings by Gustave Klimt, and unravels the symbolism which weaves the content of these paintings into the story.

Unfortunately, because Anime and Manga has so few people capable of writing such content, and so many shows dividing those people's attention, it's not common to see this sort of thing. I want to stress that questions at that level are also in short supply; most of the questions we get are the usual "Why did So-and-so do this?", "What's this Japanese pun mean?", etc. Not bad questions, but not deep or insightful. It's usually hard to write a deep answer to a shallow question.

Both of these represent potential futures for Literature: we could become like Sci-Fi and Fantasy and concentrate all of our attention on just a few big works, or we could become like Anime and Manga and have a large populist class talking about a few big works while a small elite lingers in the background, shooting questions about whatever their current interest is off into the night and hoping to hit someone with the knowledge to answer them. Both of these futures are undesirable to me.

I would like Literature to be more like Anime and Manga than Sci-Fi and Fantasy in this sense: given the vast scope of literature in the world (even if you restrict the scope to written narrative works without significant visual or aural content), I hope we won't end up a site that focuses around just Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Orwell. Those are all good stories, but they're just a tiny fraction of what the world of literature has to offer. This is going pretty well so far. I've seen questions on Borges, Whitman, Eliot, Faulkner, and Plath, and my question on William Blake got a pretty good answer faster than I was expecting.

But even more so, I would like Literature to surpass both SF&F and A&M in that whatever work we're talking about, we focus more on sophisticated inquiry and less on surface-level plot or trivia questions. It's not that those are bad or wrong questions, but they're not questions that get me fired up to go read something. Knowing that (made-up example) Baron Finklestein didn't just send a telegram because, as one of his servants mentioned in Chapter 3, the year was 1816 and the telegraph was not invented until 1844, I don't feel any urge to go read this story and I am not edified. But finding out that a story makes brilliant use of symbolism or employs an interesting plot structure leaves an impression in my mind, and might induce me to go read it if I haven't, or deepen my appreciation for it if I have. I think our current crowd of users has people who are capable of reaching this level, but we've seen it less because the site is still finding its feet. If we need a bit of snobbery to accomplish this, at least it's snobbery well applied instead of for its own sake.

On the other hand, I don't think we need to strive for the PhD crowd as our sole audience. My motive for saying so is entirely selfish: I'm not a PhD, and in fact am not very smart at all. I put "Beginner or Learner" on my commitment message. I was an English major my first year at university, and two semesters of English literature plus some rainy afternoons in the back of the library is my only training in literary criticism. I'm way too dumb to answer questions on this site even as it exists now. But every so often, I plunge in and read some Blake, or some Wordsworth, or some Shakespeare, or some Marquez, or some Wodehouse, and I have aspirations to someday read something by Thomas Pynchon and something by Vladimir Nabokov. When I do, I have questions that I'm too dumb to answer, that go beyond surface plot details. I'm hoping this will be a place I can ask them, but if every such question is greeted by a sound of crickets, I'm going to stop bringing them, just like I stopped bringing anything beyond "explain this pun" to Anime and Manga.

As a postscript, I'll comment on the scope issues. My main desire is that Literature become a place where questions about symbolism, language use, cultural and historical context, story structure, etc. get good answers, no matter what work they're asking about. If we have to eschew peripheral things like songs and graphic novels to get there, then so be it.

However, if we can reasonably include those peripheral things, I think we should, because there are indeed academics who study them in English and literature departments. A professor from the English department at the university I attended is a world-recognized expert on The Simpsons and runs an upper-division class on graphic novels covering work such as Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen, and Y: The Last Man. (I had the opportunity to take it even though it was way, way outside my major, and I squandered it.) The site can be large enough to include these works, but there is a danger that they'll take over and that the discourse on them won't reach an adequate level.

  • I agree with this answer. My question is: how do we become the kind of site you describe in this answer? I haven't seen any answers (and to be honest, less than 10% of questions) on this this are what I would describe as "expert level content".
    – user111
    Jan 28 '17 at 19:35
  • 1
    @Hamlet Good question, and I don't have a good answer for you. We'll need to first make sure we have a good supply of insightful questions that invite thoughtful analysis. We might also have to encourage people to take some questions to SF&F where applicable, and maybe even downvote questions that don't meet our standards. Once we have some good questions and answers, we might also be able to effect some change with "extracurriculars" like reading groups and "best of" posts. These haven't worked on Anime, but the community here seems more engaged.
    – Torisuda
    Jan 28 '17 at 21:15
  • 1
    I think part of the problem is that we're a week into the private beta, and we don't have any examples of high quality answers for people to emulate.
    – user111
    Jan 28 '17 at 21:19
  • 2
    @Hamlet I definitely agree. When I first started participating on Anime and Manga, I purposely emulated the style of the answers I enjoyed reading. The ones I liked most were long, thoughtful, and replete with references. The answers I've seen here so far are mostly decent, but they tend towards concisely expressing one or two key thoughts, whereas the professional criticism I've read can explore a key thought across chapters and chapters of a book, exploring how it touches on dozens of scenes and passages in the work under analysis.
    – Torisuda
    Jan 28 '17 at 21:24

I we're all overthinking things a little bit. It sounds like people are feeling intimidated. People think that literature is about words like New Criticism, postmodernism, structuralism, and that it's out of most people's reach.

In reality, literary analysis isn't that hard. For example, let's look at a literary analysis question that I asked recently: Why does Robert Frost contradict himself in “The Road Not Taken”. This literary analysis question was very easy to ask. I just found a part of the poem where its meaning was unclear, and just asked a question about it.

Answering literary analysis questions shouldn't be that hard either. For the purposes of this site, all literary analysis should involve is looking at a story, putting it in its societal/historic context, and then determining possible meanings of that text. The answers to What is Jack's crown? do a pretty good job of this -- three possible meanings are presented in three answers. The fact that questions can have more than one answer can be confusing, but that's why literary analysis is interesting in the first place!

Although experts would be nice, we don't necessarily need them to have interesting (but admittedly not expert-level) discussions about literary analysis. What we do need is interest in asking and answering these questions. Is there interest in these questions? If there is interest, then we should all make a collective effort to ask and attempt to answer these types of questions.

If you want to learn more about literary analysis, I've started collecting freely available links on my blog. Some people on chat have found them helpful.

  • 2
    +1 (well, will +1 in an hour) for "In reality, literary analysis isn't that hard". Of course we won't all be very good at it from day one, but we can work at it, learn from each other, and increase our skill until we are. All it takes is a certain way of thinking and some practice with reading and writing, not years of cloistered study.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 24 '17 at 22:55
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    @Randal'Thor just to clarify: none of the content that we can post will be near the level of complexity or sophistication of academia. That requires years of specialized training. But the users of this site certainly have the ability to post interesting questions/answers about literary analysis.
    – user111
    Jan 24 '17 at 23:04

A good question.

First, let's address the question of what the site should be. I would strongly argue that we have to go for the "expert literature" hat. "Books SE" is a weak proposition for two reasons. Firstly, it's too woolly for the Q&A format in my opinion and is likely to turn into a morass of opinionated nonsense. Second, much of what might not become a morass of opinionated nonsense is already covered by sites like Mythology and Fantasy and others. We've already discussed that we may have clashing problems with other SE sites. We need a clear differentiation, and that ought to be "expert".

Now, I am surprised by the claims here that there are almost no "experts" involved with this site. I have studied literature at university, although only to first-year undergraduate level. I chose "avid enthusiast" at the sign up because a few undergrad modules are no real claim to expertise. If you're all correct about the education of the other users in the private beta, that makes me one of the most qualified people here.

I doubt that is true.

One of the reasons I doubt it is that the quality of many of the questions and answers seems pretty high to me. Many contributors are already offering content way beyond anything I could hope to give. Now, if I am one of the most qualified people here, that means they past the test of "expertise". If, as seems likely, I am not, that means, well, that there are more qualified people here. Either way, we pass a certain bar of quality.

What seems to me to be a far bigger problem is hinted at by the large number of unanswered questions. I studied Joseph Conrad, TS Eliot, Tolkien and Shakespeare among others and have tried to ask and answer some questions based on that study. But that is a very narrow view into "literature". And this is a peculiar thing about literature and about art generally: broad knowledge is of limited value. If you want to answer meaningfully about a given work, you need to know the work.

So, for someone to offer regular contributions to an "expert literature" SE they will have to have read a lot of books. It is likely that the only people who read enough and understand enough about classic literature are indeed full-time students and academics in the subject. In order to get and maintain enough quality content here we will either need some of these specialists or we will need a much bigger and broader user base.

However, the same is the same is true of maths. Yet we have a Maths SE, which is precisely for academics and enthusiasts. And it's spawned a Maths Education SE which is even more specialist, yet thriving. These communities, in this format are of enormous use to academics and students.

Anyone coming here and using it for themselves will quickly be convinced of that. But we do need to try and gather the users and make some active inroads if we can. People who are active on other academic SE's could perhaps put word round their colleagues when we become public. Perhaps since we've built it, they will come.

In essence then: we ought to be "expert", the idea is sound, but one way or another we're going to need a bigger user base.


Do we want to be a site for academic experts?

This may require that the overall level of discussion on the main site be academic focused. I personally don't think we're ready to do so.

It's not necessarily an easy task, since true academic discussion doesn't just mean that all avid book readers can engage in such levels of discussion.

Do we want to be a site for literature enthusiasts, then?


a person who is very interested in a particular activity or subject.

Perhaps we may wish to be so, as long as we recognize the fact that not all enthusiasts are academics, and that answers may not always be perfect.

But what about people who occasionally read books once in a while and wish to ask a question about a certain book?

So then, are we a site simply for people who read books, any and all of them? Clearly not, since not all books may fit the theme of the site. For example, you wouldn't ask a programming question on here simply because you read it from a book, a programming book in this case.

So what kind of site do we wish to be, then? I'm not sure, the answer seems to be more complex than it seems to be at first.

  • I don't think we should explicitly have a goal of attracting academics to the site. For one thing, we don't have any academics right now, and it's hard to attract people if people like them aren't there in the first place.
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 17:44
  • However, I don't like the word "enthusiast". It can mean very different things. Different enthusiasts have different goals. One enthusiast might just be interested in reading books and nothing else, another enthusiast might enjoy reading academic-level-analysis of books, even though they have no formal training in literature. So for this answer to be useful, you have to at least define who you mean by "enthusiasts."
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 17:46
  • Also, if someone writes an incorrect answer, it should be downvoted and called out in the comments. The identity of the person writing the answer, whether they identify as an "enthusiast" or an "academic", shouldn't change that. Of course, in practice incorrect answers get upvoted, which might be where not having people formally trained in the study of literature hinders the success of the site.
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 17:50
  • I personally think of the site as a place to ask questions about how to understand literature. This can be simple fact-based questions (did [character x] murder [character y]), or it can be more complex analysis questions. As to who is welcome to participate in these questions: in my opinion, anyone who has read the piece of literature asked about. One of the strengths of this site is that it allows for multiple perspectives/interpretations of the same passage.
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 17:53
  • that's not true: detailed literary analysis questions have been successfully asked and answered many times on this site. Probably the best "literary analysis" answer we've gotten so far is here: literature.stackexchange.com/a/1854/111. Again, I'm not even sure if being a "site for academics" is a useful goal to have for the site. I think a far better goal is to is to be a place to discuss how to interpret/understand works of literature.
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 17:57
  • The philosophy of Stack Exchange is that the identity of the answer shouldn't matter; the only thing that should matter is the quality of the answer. Anyone theoretically can answer a question; the important thing is whether their answer is a good one. I say "anyone who read the book" because if you read the book, then presumably if you have an opinion on how to answer a question, you can support that opinion with evidence from the book.
    – user111
    Apr 23 '17 at 17:59
  • @Hamlet If I said I read some book, does that make me an instant expert on it? No. Answers are ideally given by those qualified enough to answer. The identity of the answerer doesn't matter insofar that you should not upvote based alone on the identity of the answerer, not that any random person can answer anything he wishes to answer. Apr 24 '17 at 2:34
  • Why did you post two answers and deleted one? It seems to me you could've just undeleted the old one.
    – Gallifreyan Mod
    Apr 24 '17 at 11:04
  • @Gallifryean Checked the community wiki checkbox by accident on the old one. Cannot be reversed, I think, so I made a newer one. Apr 24 '17 at 12:02

There are places where aspiring literary experts can go to ask questions of real literary experts. They are called universities. Stack Exchange is not a university. It is true that there are some quite erudite SE sites, but I'm not sure if even Mathematics.SE has questions and answers at post-doc level.

We are a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs, and I see nothing wrong in that. My main reason for committing to this beta was that I wanted to provide somewhere for users of ELL and ELU to go with literary analysis questions that are off-topic on those sites. If we can provide some help for those people, then we are doing useful work. We must just do the best that we can and admit to our own limitations.

I have been contributing to ELL and ELU for a few months now, and my theoretical knowledge of English grammar is slowly growing, to the point where I can answer some grammar questions without being slapped down (kindly) by a real expert. I call that progress.

Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in.

Thomas Mallory, Le Morte d'Arthur

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    Math. SE is not for the experts, correct. That's what MathOverflow is for.
    – Mithical Mod
    Jan 24 '17 at 21:45
  • I didn't realise that there are two maths sites.
    – Mick
    Jan 24 '17 at 21:45
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    The problems on MathOverflow definitely reach near PhD level at times.
    – Benjamin
    Jan 24 '17 at 22:15
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    @Benjamin That's an understatement, believe me. The questions there go not only up to but beyond PhD level. But getting back to the point, MathOverflow is a special exception within the SE network: it started off as its own thing, much more discussiony IIRC, and only later merged with SE. They can attract some real experts and professionals; most sites can't.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jan 24 '17 at 23:09

Posting this insightful comment from chat so it doesn't get lost:

The Stack's basic "Back it up!" principle should, in theory, be sufficient for lit.se as well.

Unfortunately, in my experience a significant number of Stack users are members of that part of the wider population which has not been trained in the difference between assertion and support.

This means most attempts to ask that support be added to an answer are interpreted as a challenge to the user's expertise, and that creates a defensive attitude which opposes the support-based culture underlying the best Stack content.

I've seen it on multiple Stacks, where opinion-based subjects are considered either free-for-all open game for unsupported speculation, or are considered impossible to answer within the Stack structure.

Literature can't succumb to that false dichotomy or it will crash and burn where some other Stacks can still survive with limited function.

But we don't actually need to invent extra policies for answering questions here, at least not yet. The simple notion that claims need explicit support--ANY kind of support--should be enough to get us off the ground, with multiple answers providing multiple critical lenses.

This attitude (that claims need support, but not specifying the kind of support) creates a space for responses ranging from reader response (experience-based support is a major part of several Stacks already! see rpg.se, parenting.se, gardening.se, etc) to authorial intent.

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    I think this answer may be pertinent to this question in a number of key ways, but I'm not quite seeing much information in this answer on that. Would you be willing to elaborate a little on how this links up with the question?
    – user80
    Nov 7 '17 at 10:08

I have to admit, I've become discouraged with this community. On one hand, a lot of people seem to like the idea of being a community that creates high-quality content that is useful to others on the internet. On the other hand, to be honest, I don't really see very many people putting in the effort to actually learn about literature. I see a lot of debates about tags or other meaningless issues--I've been part of that debate and share the blame for that--but I don't really see any learning happening.

Our debate over whether music counts as literature is the epitome of that. People came into the debate with very strong feelings, but then didn't bother to put the time and effort into resolving what is a very complicated issue. I doubt that more than two people have read any sort of article on the subject that isn't a wikipedia article or a dictionary page. It's like people think that what they already know is enough and like they shouldn't have to put any effort into learning more. That's a problem, because as we saw at the beginning of the site, we don't really know anything about literature. If people aren't learning or aren't willing to learn, then what does that say about this site?

If anything, as a community we've managed to leapfrog straight past learning the tools of literary study and skipped ahead to the antagonistic snobbery.

Here are some questions that are worth considering:

  1. Do you read academic articles about literature? Why or why not?
  2. What have you learned since joining the site? Has this knowledge been factual (I learned that [author x] worked as a [profession y])? Or have you learned methods, such as close reading?
  3. When you learn things, is it on your own initiative? What kinds of things are you learning on your own initiative?
  4. What kind of research do you do before answering questions?

We need people being useful. I'm not sure what being useful means to people in this community. For me, being useful means taking initiative and learning on your own. For me, being useful means recognizing that learning literary criticism means learning new ways of thinking and writing (e.g. close reading). For me, being useful doesn't mean waiting for others to explain things, but taking initiative and learning things yourself.

I have to be honest, I can count the number of people being useful on this site on my right hand. I see lots of people debating about meaningless tagging issues and and closing questions for dubious reasons; I don't really see anyone at the moment being actually useful. Someone's got to step up.

What resources can I use to learn more about literature?

  1. Scholar.google.com
  2. Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison
  3. My close reading answer
  4. Reading academic works of literary criticism
  5. Going to the site's chat room and perusing the many links posted there.

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