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.)

  • 1
    I think this is a much better version of the proposal meta.literature.stackexchange.com/q/536/111
    – user111
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 7:29
  • To clarify: what happens if someone posts a question without context? does it get closed?
    – user111
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 7:31
  • 2
    @Hamlet This is a little broader than Standback's, in that it requires some motivational context for pretty much all questions, not just conjecture questions. Though Standback did a much better job at presentation... I'll edit a link to theirs in. To your second question, it does seem like a good application of putting a question on hold until edited, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it should be a close reason until it's met with success as a general approach first.
    – user80
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 7:32
  • 2
    I think this is going to boil down to a fundamental divide I'm feeling. SE is a Q&A platform; in many ways a problem-solving platform. And there's a divide between those who feel that "I am curious" is an answerable question, a solvable problem, and those who feel that it isn't. "I am curious" is very hard to place in motivational context; OP wants to learn more, but doesn't know the topic. That's also why answers to an "I am curious" question tend to be more essays, explaining a topic OP is entirely unfamiliar with, than answers, resolving a well-defined difficulty OP understands well.
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 8:21
  • Mulling this over. I've a question for you that's beyond the scope of comments; I've asked over on chat, whenever you want to take a look :)
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:41
  • 2
    There's a very big difference here between recommend and require. I would support recommending people to explain why they're asking a question (because it often makes the question more interesting, and sometimes easier to appreciate even for people who haven't read the book being asked about), but requiring it (as in, closing questions which don't) is a step too far and would probably tend to push Literature in the direction of Skeptics - a direction I really don't want to go in.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 0:19

1 Answer 1


One trend which I see a lot of across Stack Exchange are questions that make me think "Whaaaaaa?" These are questions like - and these are real question bodies, in their entirety -

  • Will there still be antisemitism in 35th century?

  • What "matter" is populating a force "field"? It can't be actually empty?

  • Is it true that Isaac Newton once drank a beer with horse dung in it for medicinal purposes? (I hope it was medicinal purposes)
    (History of Science and Mathematics)

The last one still makes me laugh, but that's besides the point. All three questions have one of several problems, which is why they're all currently closed:

  • It may be extremely unclear what the OP is saying. (Number 2) This could be because of grammar, but in this case, nobody could figure out what the poster meant by "force field", "populating", or "empty". Could there be a decent question there? Some would say no; some would say yes. But the question is poorly defined and poorly constrained.
  • It may be unclear what the OP's initial premise is, and how they got from that to the current question. (Number 3) For instance, the author did not know where they heard the initial claim or why anyone should care. Granted, people in Newton's time still had some embarrassing medical practices (leeches, anyone?), so it's not that far-fetched, but we just have no clue where the OP got that idea, and why it should be taken seriously.
  • It may be that the question shows no research effort to an extreme degree. Now, lacking research effort is a reason to downvote, not close. However, I've seen cases where the answer was so obvious that people were unsure why the OP was asking the question. Whether this is valid is (ironically) itself extremely unclear; there's no canonical policy that says it should be used. I wouldn't rule it out, and it does make questions worse, but I'd be uncomfortable using "The answer's obvious" as the only reason to close a question. Obvious is relative, and we're trying to embrace non-Googlers.1
  • A question doesn't have to have an obvious answer to show a lack of research effort. One-sentence bodies often fall into this category, even if the question itself may be appealing. The thought that comes to mind, though, is "Why should I care?" (Number 1) These are the "I am curious" questions, and they are not conducive to good answers because they are not well constrained.

And that last bullet is my point. The problem with these questions is the answers (due to the question, of course, but the issue is manifested in the answers). In some cases, there will be answers that don't help the asker because the OP doesn't really tell us what they are truly confused about or want to know; this makes it easier to develop the XY Problem. Short questions are sometimes easy to interpret broadly; constraints will focus the answers and actually help people. If you don't add context, then the answers will lack this focus. From there, it is clear that the question should be closed as Unclear (or possibly Too Broad).

In other words, if I don't know what the OP is thinking, can I really write a good answer? Maybe, in some cases, which is why I'm not in favor of a hardline, no-exceptions policy. However, I do think that we should require in most cases that the OP explain their thought process fully.

The answers to a question aren't always reasons to decide whether or not to close a question. However, we do have some close reasons network-wide that are based on what kind of answers the question will get:

unclear what you're asking

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. too broad

too broad

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.

primarily opinion-based

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.

We already close questions on the basis of the answers they're likely to get. Closing questions without context both continue this philosophy and fit into at least one close reason (Unclear). I say that we should absolutely require questions to give some context for why they were asked. If not, I think close votes may be warranted.

1 I'm not sure I fully agree with this policy; I feel that thoroughly searching for an answer on the Internet is part of good research. However, the community seems to want to go through with this, and if that's the case, I'll certainly support acting accordingly in other areas.

  • I think I'm going to have to downvote this because you seem to be calling for close-votes in contexts where downvotes would be the better approach. You do say "lacking research effort is a reason to downvote, not close", which I agree with, but then you sort of negate that with some of your later remarks.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 0:14
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    @Randal'Thor I'm curious, which ones specifically? My second bullet further down does go back to that, I guess, but I meant to indicate that the questions will likely not get good answers, not that they should necessarily be closed.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 1:44
  • Firstly, your appraisal of the LotR example: IMO, questions like that should be downvoted but not closed, because they're terrible but on-topic. It's possible such a question might be literally a troll question - over on SFF, we recently saw a spate of terribad questions which were part of a concerted attempt to troll the site - but in that case it should be mod-deleted and still not closed. Secondly, the final two sentences of your answer: admittedly "I think close votes may be warranted" isn't a very strong statement, but it's an answer to the main question, and one I disagree with.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 1:53
  • (I realise I'm criticising your answer without providing one of my own to counter it; this is something I intend to remedy, but I'm really busy and tired atm. Perhaps tomorrow.)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 1:55

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