What's the history behind the first Literature StackExchange? Why was it closed? How can we avoid the same thing from happening to this one?

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    Why did Literature fail?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 17:49
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    How will Literature be run different this time?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 17:50
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  • @Randal'Thor Thanks. I actually found the first one myself right after asking. The others are interesting, thanks!
    – tobiasvl
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 17:51
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a duplicate of meta.stackexchange.com/questions/131397/why-did-literature-fail.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 19:30
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    @Benjamin I'm not going to fight you on that! However, "off-topic" seems like the wrong close reason, and marking it as a duplicate won't work since the dupe is on another SE. Hmm.
    – tobiasvl
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 19:32
  • @tobiasvl I was going to mark as a duplicate, but because it was off-site off-topic was the closest.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 19:37
  • If someone like @Randal'Thor would want to answer this question with just the links to the other relevant questions, I'd be happy to accept that answer so this metastack actually does supply the background and history to other curious people.
    – tobiasvl
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 20:37
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    The answer to the practical question is "for reasons the current iteration of the site isn't suffering from."
    – user80
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 22:34
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    IMHO, even with previous discussions on the topic, this is is still a valuable discussion to have now, specifically in the context of the new Beta.
    – Standback
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 7:17

2 Answers 2


I'm going to answer this question in the form of quotes from several previous meta discussions on the same or related issues, along with some of my own commentary based on how this incarnation of the site has actually been coming along so far. Brace yourself: this may be long.

Why did Literature fail?

  1. The highest-voted answer, from the user known here as Standback, says:

    Since I found this site, I've never been able to square with its site definition. That's a lot of what kept me away.

    On the one hand, the most popular topics - recommendations, story identification, and reading order - seemed to me inconsequential and uninteresting. Their utility is obvious, but generally speaking, these are the opposite of expert questions. These are (usually) trivialities and everybody-can-answer questions. On a more active site with wider scope (e.g. SciFi), these questions might be a mere nuisance in my own opinion, but when they seem like the primary focus of the site, they drown it out. It becomes a site that discourages visitors who were hoping for more than that.

    On the other hand, the SE format seems an extremely poor fit for getting into deeper literary discussions. Analysis of a work can be structured very naturally as a dialogue; I honestly don't see what can be gained by shoehorning it into a question/answer, problem/solution format. I never have. And while I wasn't very active on the site, I did peek in from time to time, even gave a shot or two myself, and never saw anybody manage to get a serious analytical discussion off the ground at a level that interested me - and I think the SE format is the primary reason for that.

    Regarding both these categories of questions, my feeling is that these questions work just as well or better on a regular forum than they do on a strictly-formatted SE platform. This being the case, SE hampers rather than helps.

    How does this assessment compare with the new Literature site?

    Well, recommendation questions are firmly off-topic this time round, and while there have been both story identification and reading order questions here (mostly good-quality ones, IMHO), neither has been occurring in dangerously large volumes or threatening to swamp the site.

    As for literary analysis questions: while they have inspired several meta debates about their workability given the SE model and the community we have here, they have on the whole been successful and provoked well-thought-out, carefully written answers. I can provide example links to support my claim that literary analysis Q&A have been working well here so far, but I don't think I need to - if anyone disagrees, please tell me why.

  2. The second answer, from DForck42, says:

    I think the very first thing was letting recommendations be on-topic. With 85 out of 434 questions they were about 1/5th of the site, but drew little traffic. People get tired of looking at stuff that doesn't interest them.

    I think another issue is that we lost a lot of traffic to sci-fi because it shares such a huge portion of content with literature.

    Again, recommendations are off-topic this time round. As for overlap with Sci-Fi & Fantasy, that's been discussed here, and (as a very active user on both sites) I honestly don't think it's going to be too much of a problem. Sure, there are a few SFF people who can't be bothered to participate here because the only fiction they read is sci-fi and fantasy, but there are also plenty who've happily joined up here and are helping to build this site too. SFF and Movies & TV have coped for years with having scope overlap without either site collapsing. Furthermore, so far it looks as though the 'tone' of this site - the style of questions and answers encouraged here - is shaping up to be very different from SFF's (again, I can elaborate on this if anyone wants me to), which means that although many literary works could be asked about on either site, the types of question asked may differ between here and SFF, which reduces the 'competition' for content.

How can we make this literature proposal succeed when other literature proposals have failed

The top answer, from Hamlet, says:

Instead, I think the problem is a lack of effort. While the last literature proposal had 89 followers, it also only had 45 example questions (many of which were downvoted and/or closed). In order for a proposal to succeed, it needs 40 questions that have 10 or more upvotes. Therefore, I would encourage everyone to ask five example questions. If you don't have time to create an original example question, you can copy questions from the old literature proposal or from the old literature site (which was closed back when Stack Exchange had different standards about site activity).

And of course, I would also encourage everyone to promote this site on other Stack Exchange sites, on other online communities, and among people whom you personally know.

Let's make this proposal a success!

EDIT: In response to questions I have received about the closure of the formal literature site, I'm going to briefly discuss why that site was closed. In my opinion, the site was closed for three reasons:

  1. As I stated, earlier, the old literature site was closed back when Stack Exchange had different standards for about site activity for beta sites. Obviously, those standards no longer apply to beta sites, and if this proposal eventually reached the private beta phase it wouldn't be in danger of being shut down for that reason.

  2. The second reason why the old literature site wasn't successful was that it had turned into a site dedicated to book recommendations. People weren't asking questions about literature; they were asking questions along the line of "could you recommend a book that I would enjoy to me." This problem could easily be avoided in the new site: we would just have to be proactive about closing book recommendation questions.

  3. Looking at the data dump of the old literature site's meta section, I got the impression that people were confused about the scope of the site. It wasn't clear whether the site was supposed to be a book recommendation site, a site for literary analysis, or a site to answer basic plot points in works of literature. I don't think that this proposal should be a book recommendation site -- there are other proposals for that -- but I do think it could be successful as a combination of the second and the third topics.

    I am worried that there don't seem to be very many literary analysis questions on the area51 page, and since Stack Exchange originated as a programming site, I'm not sure if this proposal will attract many teachers/scholars of literature who have the expertise necessary to answer those questions. However, it certainly is worth a try.

    I've asked and answered many literary analysis type questions on Mythology.SE, and I would be willing to ask and answer such questions on a literature site if it was created. The question that remains is whether others would be willing (and have the expertise necessary) to do the same. I think it's worth a shot.

  4. As I mentioned earlier, I disagree with the assertion, made by some people, that questions about literature ill suited to the Stack Exchange format. Previously in this answer, I gave examples of questions asked and answered on Stack Exchange's mythology website about relatively complex literary elements in mythology. I think these examples show that even complex literary analysis questions can be successful on Stack Exchange.

How does this assessment compare with what's actually been happening in the first week and a half of our lovely shiny new site?

Well, the issue of followers and example questions has already been resolved, in order for us to get this far. (It wouldn't be boasting to say that a significant proportion of this was thanks to me. I'm active in a lot of different chatrooms, and I bugged a lot of people to follow the proposal and use up all their upvotes on example questions. Without that effort, who knows what would have happened.)

I agree with most of the rest of Hamlet's answer, the important points being that SE's standards are different now (making it much less likely that we'll fail in beta), recommendation questions are banned now (again!), we can mix literary analysis with trivia/plot questions (further reading), and yes, literary analysis really can work (see above).

How will Literature be run different this time?

The top answer to this one is more or less the same as the answer just quoted above, so I'll skip straight to the second answer, written by myself:

A clearer and better site scope.

Judging from what I've read about the failure of the previous Literature site - e.g. Why did Literature fail? - it seems that many of the problems there were due to either an unclear understanding of site scope, or an overabundance of questions which were on-topic and really shouldn't have been (e.g. recommendation questions). This time, let's be more proactive both about deciding on a clear scope and about shutting out questions that will be bad for the site. I plan to start several different scope-related meta threads as soon as private beta starts.

More experience.

The previous incarnation of Literature was, what, 4, 5, years ago? In that time, sites such as Science Fiction and Fantasy, Movies & TV, and Anime & Manga have grown to maturity. We can now see what a successful site based on analysis of fictional works (rather than programming, mathematics, etc.) actually looks like. Many of the followers and committers of the Literature proposal are already active on those sites. I'm a mod at SFF; you're a former mod at M&TV; let's bring our experience to the table and help to make Literature great!

The first of these issues isn't fully resolved, as there's still some confusion about whether various borderline questions should really be on-topic or not. Maybe it'll never be fully resolved, but many healthy sites have Scope Wars to one extent or another. Most of the questions being posted here have never faced a single close vote, and that's heartening. Our scope debates may rage long and hard, but I'm not too worried about them destroying the site.

The second issue is definitely an advantage. We've had active users and moderators from many related sites - SFF, M&TV, RPG, Writers, even Arqade - sharing their knowledge and experience here and helping this site to become its own newly-fledged beast, taking wisdom from many sources and yet unique and distinct from all of them. Exactly as it should be.

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    My takeaways are these: (1) What we're trying to do is hard. (2) We have the dedication and people to make it work. (3) We're doing the work we need to, to make the scope clearer; we've already answered many central questions to this effect. (4) A userbase with broader literary interests helps - which this one is. (5) We've found a way to make analysis and longer-form thought work. (6) Maybe (just maybe), we're more patient with harder questions and longer answers. I think we're on the right track.
    – user80
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 1:51
  • I do still consider the workability of Literature Q&A to be an open question. I have some serious reservations - I'm concerned that a lot of content doesn't fit well into Q&A (I'm fascinated by the issue I raised here, but unconvinced Q&A is a helpful format to discuss it) ; I'm concerned about the site being flooded by "cheap" questions of the "What is the significance of trivial detail X in book Y" mold; I'm concerned about the existence of "expert-level" questions, i.e. whether Lit "experts" will truly have questions they want answered.
    – Standback
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 7:13
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    But it's certainly worth the attempt; I think previous experience has showed us some areas and tones to steer clear of, and I'm very happy to put in some effort participating to see whether we can make it work :)
    – Standback
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 7:14

I disagree with @Standback and @DForck42 on the reason the previous site failed - but, then, maybe that's part of why it failed - because we couldn't even agree on a definition of success.

The biggest struggle I faced, from a moderator standpoint, was meeting the aggressive numbers targets set by StackExchange with no idea how to promote the site - they offered to help me promote it, but I was often left feeling like it was up to me to come up with the ideas, and that just isn't a skillset I have.

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    It's fortunate, then, that SE has since changed their policy on what's required for a site not to be shut down. Even if we don't graduate for a long time, we don't seem to be in danger of going the same way as Lit.1 this time round.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 11:58

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