12

I recently asked the question What is C. S. Lewis' opinion about homosexuality?. The question was closed as being off-topic.

Are questions about authors' personal opinions on-topic or off-topic?

2
  • In case it's not clear, I asked that question to test the boundaries of the site's scope.
    – user111
    Mar 1 '17 at 23:51
  • 5
    Well, that's a relief. I thought you asked it because you're trying to overrun the site with evil off-topic questions, and was about to call for your dediamonding :-P
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Mar 1 '17 at 23:58
8

If they're phrased so as to relate to the author's works, then yes.

I wrote about this issue way back on Area 51, and much of the below is copied from my answer there.

Learning about authors helps us to appreciate their works better. If we want to learn more about works of literature (or any art, really), part of that involves looking at the people who created them. Why did they write it like this instead of like that - what inspired them to do so?

  • Part of the reason why Orwell's 1984 ended as depressingly as it did was because while writing it, Orwell was suffering from an illness which eventually killed him.
  • Many of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems concern the death of a young woman close to the narrator - these were inspired by the early death of Poe's own wife.

Knowing these details about the author's lives helps us to analyse their works.

If they're NOT phrased so as to relate to the author's works ... maybe?

An important question in any discussion where we might end up ruling one class of questions on-topic and another, but very similar and closely related, class off-topic is: where do we draw the line?

Let's look at some example questions, partly drawn from Area 51 (some of which have by now been re-asked on the site) and partly from actual questions on the site:

  • How has experience in WWI influenced Tolkien's writing?

    This is actually more about Tolkien's books than about the man himself. The question is deliberately phrased in terms of the influence on his works, which should place it very firmly on-topic despite involving details of his life outside of writing.

  • When and why did the Brothers Grimm start collecting fairy tales?

    The highest-voted question from the definition stage, this could be seen as more about the authors than their works. OK, it's about how their magnum opus came to be, but any answer would likely be about their real lives and not about literature per se. This question has been asked on the site, and is currently very highly-voted with no pending votes to close.

  • Where did Margery Allingham talk about "polishing her prose until it shone overbright"?

    This again seems to be more about an author than her works as such. It's been asked on the site, and currently has a positive score with no pending votes to close.

  • How much experience did Tolkien have in writing?

    This question is definitely more about the author than about his works, although it's definitely also relevant to his works and appreciation thereof.

  • How did the Inklings originate?

    This question (self-promotion alert!) is entirely about real-world authors and not at all about their works as such, but (as I mentioned in a footnote on the question itself) I believe that knowing more about the real-world origins of the writing group might help us to appreciate the literary works which were shaped partly through meetings of that group.

All of these examples, except the first, have now been asked on the site, and all have been well-received: currently with positive scores and no pending votes to close. It seems that community opinion is in favour of questions about authors, at least provided they make some effort to justify a connection with works of literature. Your example doesn't, which may go some way towards explaining why it was so poorly received and quickly closed by three normal users and a moderator.

Back on Area 51, I said that "questions about authors are more likely to be on-topic if phrased in terms of their works", and used the first of the examples considered above to illustrate this point: "Where exactly did Tolkien serve in WWI?" might or might not be considered on-topic, but "How did his WWI experience influence Tolkien's writing?" would surely be fine. Now I would probably rephrase my statement in terms of quality rather than scope, and recommend downvoting rather than voting to close for questions about authors which aren't sufficiently clear in explaining a connection with works of literature. However, I'm open to being persuaded on this point - I realise we don't want the site to get overrun with random biographical questions about every author ever (did Tolkien drive, what's George RR Martin's favourite sandwich, how did JK Rowling do in maths at school, etc.), so if we start seeing too many of these, then maybe close-voting will have to be the way to go after all.

6
  • 1
    Exactly. I closed it because it's asking about some random opinion by the author, with no clear connection to the books. And now I have to think about the Inklings question more :/
    – Mithical Mod
    Mar 1 '17 at 23:44
  • What about a question like "Does JKR have a favorite sandwich? Does she mention this sandwich in her books?"
    – user111
    Mar 1 '17 at 23:51
  • @Hamlet Technically that does make a connection with works of literature, so it would be on-topic under the terms of this answer. Of course, on-topic doesn't mean good. Questions like "does the word warthog ever appear in the HP books?" would probably also be on-topic yet downvoted to hell.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Mar 2 '17 at 0:01
  • 3
    I think this ultimately gets at the issue of proper motivation, which has come up elsewhere. There's a growing overarching principle that all questions asked here need to be asked from a solid, literature-based motivation, not only because it shows relevance, but it can also change the answer. This question isn't inherently off topic, but its reason for being asked here certainly needs to be elucidated more clearly.
    – user80
    Mar 2 '17 at 0:10
  • @Emrakul I think you said you would make a meta post about that in chat. I think you're right, and I'm hopeful such a meta post could tackle posts that confuse intentions with meaning. (these posts are problematic bc they exclude answers that don't look at author's intentions, even when not looking at author's intentions is the correct way to answer the question).
    – user111
    Mar 2 '17 at 0:19
  • @Hamlet I'm planning on drafting and maybe posting something to this effect later today.
    – user80
    Mar 2 '17 at 0:21
-3

By the meta discussion, if you're asking whether they wrote about it and what they wrote, it's on-topic.

Devar-TTY
Are questions about authors on-topic, or just their works? For example, asking about authors lives, motivations, interviews, or anything relating to their work.

HDE 226868:
I would say that they would be on-topic, but only insofar as they relate to an author's literary life.

We had a similar issue on History of Science and Mathematics early on. Would a question about Einstein's favorite style of eggs be on-topic? Obviously not, because, as far as we know, eggs did not have any role in Einstein's scientific work. Extrapolating that here, I don't think that a question about J. R. R. Tolkien's favorite sandwich should be on-topic, but I do think that a question about whether certain portions of his books related to certain events in his life should be on-topic.

4
  • I'm not quite sure what you mean by "if you're asking whether they wrote about it and what they wrote"
    – user111
    Mar 1 '17 at 23:14
  • You're asking about the author's opinion as it relates to their work. That seems to hit both points. It's about an author's opinion, but it's OK because you want to know as it relates to what they've written. Mar 1 '17 at 23:16
  • 2
    No where in the question does it ask about whether Lewis' personal opinion about homosexuality affected the stories/literature that he wrote.
    – user111
    Mar 1 '17 at 23:19
  • It obviously affected the book cited in the answer. :-P Mar 1 '17 at 23:26

You must log in to answer this question.