Lately, I've been thinking about a common thread between questions that seem to be an... issue on Literature. We've gotten a lot of questions that have been downvoted, and sometimes closed, sometimes not - and they all seem to share a common attribute: a lack of an explanation for why they were asked.
This criticism doesn't just appear on downvoted and ambiguously-closed questions - it also appears on questions that happen to be popular. But those questions are frequently ones that seem to be about commonly-known works, or books many people are familiar with, for which people are internally (but not explicitly) logicking through why someone would ask at all.
This question was originally raised in my mind due to a specific breed of question - questions that, on the surface, aren't explicitly relevant to the scope of literature, but about which it's reasonable to suspect that they were asked because of literature. For example, questions about beliefs an author held, removed from the contexts of the books they wrote, are often directly relevant to the content of those works; but when asked in that way, doesn't appear on the surface level to be about literature.
These questions still are on topic, in principle, though - if the point of this site is to create a resource where we can help each other better understand the written word, then such questions are definitely on topic, because what's behind them is usually some aim toward understanding the written word. But I don't think anyone would deny that they're missing something critically important.
I think that missing thing may be motivational context. What I'm talking about are a few questions that come to any reader's mind when they scan a querent's question:
- Why did you ask this?
- What answer are you hoping to get?
- How can I, as an answerer, actually address the question you're asking about?
- and Probably Others, Too!
There are a lot of questions to which this applies. As a literature site, we've already gotten a lot of questions about one-off theories - "did [X] really happen?" "what was this author's opinion?" - but it's not just these kinds of questions that could benefit from motivational context. Questions like, "is [X] a reliable narrator?" also need context.
In other words, whenever anyone comes to this site and asks a question, they have a reason for asking it. But missing that context hinders answerers and actually makes the question somewhat vague and even possibly downright unanswerable as written. Understanding where a querent is coming from is critically important to properly addressing their concerns.
Something similar has been proposed by Standback before. Their question is definitely worth reading, but this question is a little broader - this isn't just talking about conjecture questions, but more generally is a statement that all questions asked here benefit from motivational context.
This can be a little hard to talk about, because examples are both thick in quantity and thin in quality. The ideal example would be a question that was missing context, was later edited to add context, and as a result, greatly improved. I'm still looking for an ideal example.
However, I can comment on a number of specific examples:
Reading order question - "What order should I read Thomas Pynchon's novels in?" - Rand's comment here sums it up pretty well. The querent really needs to add information about why they think they should be reading this in a specific order at all, otherwise answerers are sort of at a loss for how to address the question.
Reading order questions as a whole need to have a reason for being asked. Just taking any author's works and asking if there's an intended order isn't super helpful for anyone - clearly, something led the querent to believe there was an intended order, and if so, they should elucidate it so answers can properly address it. Here are some cheap, quick, easy-to-find examples:
Good contextualization example - "Did Shakespeare consider Julius Caesar a tyrant or a martyr?" - This has a clearly stated reason for being asked, a good justification and motivation, and as a result, it gained a clear answer exposing some of the details related to the author's experience.
I consider this a pretty clear case where having context for why something was asked directly lent itself to answers more properly addressing it. I consider this an effective example, if not close to ideal.
- Authorial intent question - "How do people eat in “The Library of Babel”?" - While this question is probably as good as it'll get just because of its content, it surely could have benefited from a more thorough description of what motivated the question. An answer would have been able to more tangibly address that.
- Authorial intent question (a better one) - "Did a specific person inspire Lord Byron's poem “She walks in beauty”?"
- Intertextuality question - "Are Endymion and Hyperion by John Keats intended to be related pieces?" - While I think this question is good, I had a very specific reason for proposing this on Area 51, which was that Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Endymion duologies are connected. The question here doesn't contain any reason to believe that they're connected, which I think weakens it. It ultimately still received a reasonably good answer, though, a couple weeks later.
So, is motivational context something we should require from questions? (I mean where it's relevant. Story ID questions, for example, are their own issue.)