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Our site's growing a bit of a diversity problem. Most of us have read many of the same books, and so many of the questions we get are... about those books specifically. The top site tags betrays this bias: look past the generic tags, and you run face-first into George Orwell, 1984, Sherlock Holmes, JRR Tolkien, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, William Golding, and Shakespeare.

This bias is derivative from the culture in which most of us grew up. Even across country lines, in English-speaking countries, many of the books that are considered "important" and "literary" are shared. We also may or may not be pulling some to much of this from Scifi Stack Exchange.

But there's a whole lot of literature out there sitting in topics we're not even touching. It's not that we're intentionally avoiding those areas - it's just that the way we've been taught to read has passively encouraged us to avoid books that are too far out from what we're used to. And the body of works that are deemed "classic" and "literary" by our culture is, despite its harsh limitation, so broad that one could spend decades reading and still not finish.

This is an issue for our site. Ultimately, a literature site is best served by being multicultural and pluralistic, rather than beset by an unconscious, unintentional, and very historical bias toward one category alone. Hamlet has remarked that this narrowing could be a serious risk to the site's health if it goes unaddressed, I think they may be correct.

There's hardly going to be a quick fix... but I had an idea. At least as first steps.

A lot of sites have topic challenges. These sites have a meta post where people answer with suggestions for what the next topic challenge could be, and when the next one rolls around, the top answer is picked and a new topic challenge is born. For the duration of the challenge, people post questions and answers pertaining to it.

I'm thinking of a variation of this for Literature.SE. How about we create a topic challenge dedicated specifically to content that fall well outside of what we normally read? Each month (month? discuss:), we pick the top answer, which has been selected by the community for its diversification, either culturally, structurally, or really in any positive way, and those of us who wish to do so go ahead and read it. It can be anything - oral tradition, mythology, fantasy, philosophy, you name it - as long as there's enough there to reasonably fill a casual month with reading, it's good.

We'd want to strongly encourage people to upvote books different than what they normally read, and to let be in peace answers that are pretty similar to books they've read in the past. We'd also want, perhaps, to encourage content that's challenging to understand.

There would be very few good reasons to downvote suggestions - maybe if they weren't large enough to reasonably fill a month, or if it's excessively difficult to get ahold of a copy of the book, or if it's not just hard but downright inaccessible as a text from outside the culture. (Though we have to be careful - books from different cultures are a priori harder both to get ahold of and to understand. We don't want to end up discouraging them.)

I think this is, at minimum, a good step toward addressing the quiet and surreptitious narrowing of the scope of the site. At the very minimum, actually getting our hands on multicultural books is the first step in learning how to handle and talk about these issues better, so it has to be our starting point.

What are your thoughts?

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    Just FYI, we don't have to do just books. We could do poetry, short stories, etc. These might be more successful because there's less time involved. – user111 Mar 6 '17 at 3:36
  • @Hamlet Good point. Maybe poetry would be better on a shorter cycle, too. (Which is totally doable.) – Aza Mar 6 '17 at 3:45
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  • Related: the RPG.SE birthday contest was designed to promote increased activity in underused tags. – BESW Mar 6 '17 at 10:30
  • +1 for using the word "bailiwick" ... er, I mean, for a great suggestion! – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '17 at 11:22
  • "We also may or may not be pulling some to much of this from Scifi Stack Exchange." - I'm not quite sure what you mean by this, given that most of the works you list aren't sci-fi or fantasy. (Even 1984, which is technically on-topic at SFF, has a grand total of 17 questions there from the last five years.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '17 at 11:25
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    "There would be very few good reasons to downvote suggestions" - if someone suggests Harry Potter or Lord of the Flies as a topic challenge, I'magonna downvote it whatever you say :-) – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '17 at 11:26
  • We've been trying to solve the same problem on Anime for years, to no success, so I sincerely hope we can solve it here. – Torisuda Mar 8 '17 at 18:59
  • @Torisuda How does the problem manifest on Anime? I'd be curious to hear about it. (Maybe chat, at some point?) – Aza Mar 8 '17 at 19:18
  • @Emrakul It's pretty similar to what we've got here: there are a small number of popular, long-running anime series (Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Dragon Ball Z, and a few others) that most of the questions asked are about. Then we've got a cadre of about twenty dedicated users who aren't interested in these shows, who mostly do moderation work because we're never watching the same thing at the same time to answer each others' questions. – Torisuda Mar 8 '17 at 19:26
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    I dunno. It didn't work out well in Mythology SE. One "book of the month" was the Prose Edda, which is supposedly nice and accessible, and would interest me, but it turns out it has no Hungarian translation, so I couldn't read it. If you do make them, then make them longer than a week though. – b_jonas Mar 9 '17 at 11:32
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Let me put it this way. At one point today, 90% of the questions on our homepage were about two books: 1984 and Lord of the Flies.

That's fine if you only want to read and ask questions about 1984 and Lord of the Flies. But what if you don't like those books and want to talk about something different? Given how many different stories exists, it's highly unlikely that those are the only books everyone wants to talk about. Personally, if I didn't know about the site and I saw the homepage today, I would have no interest in joining the site.

Here's an idea for all of us to consider. If someone isn't interested in discussing 1984 or Lord of the Flies (or the five or six books that make up most of the questions on this site), there should be other questions for that person to discuss that are visible on the homepage.

This meta post is a specific suggestion to address a broad issue. Topic challenges are a great idea and we should absolutely implement them. Everyone should participate. They'll be really fun. If you're motivated by fake Internet points, I'll even promise to give out bounties to those who participate.

But let's not ignore the larger issue, and let's take steps, both individually and collectively, to address it.

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    This is fair. I think there's value in awareness, not just of the problem (which many of us have), but of what exactly we're missing (which many of us don't), as a good first step. – Aza Mar 6 '17 at 5:10
  • @Emrakul I agree with everything you wrote in your question, and I thought you did a good job explaining why this problem exists. I just wrote this answer because I wanted to emphasize the negative effect this problem has on the site. – user111 Mar 6 '17 at 5:32
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    This answer seems to be mainly a longer description of the problem which motivated the question, with hardly any commentary on the solution suggested in the question. You make some very good points, but maybe it's worth emphasising the penultimate paragraph a bit more? – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '17 at 11:19
  • "But what if you don't like those books and want to talk about something different?" This is likely not what you meant, and it is not useful for new users, but you could add those tags to your ignored tags. That is not a solution, but it might help a bit. – wythagoras Mar 12 '17 at 19:21
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I like it. I like it a lot. I look forward to seeing more Rūmī (13th-century Persian poet) and Albert Wendt (contemporary Samoan poet and novelist) on the site!

But I'd like to add that building a diverse and multicultural scope must include more than seeking out the "important" works from other cultures: simultaneously we need to also seek out marginalised works that haven't made it into the literary canon. Many of the works we're asking questions about, we know because knowing them is a signal of good repute. It impresses people if we can reference Robert Frost, and recognising a Tolkien quote signals that we're part of the same clan as the person who recited it.

I encourage us to look outside the sphere of referential reputation in whatever culture we cast our gaze upon. Maybe nobody will get erudition points for quoting Robert Hayden (though we should; he was a notable Poet Laureate) but his poems are powerful and challenging and it will be rewarding to study them all the same. And maybe it's not a cultural touchstone, but I really want to read The Sea is Ours (an anthology of Southeast Asian steampunk stories by Southeast Asian authors) because it's part of a brand-new, consciously cultivated subgenre that's fascinating to watch grow in real time.

Of course, this isn't to say we shouldn't be reading Iraj Pezeškzâd (author of one of the most beloved Iranian novels in the last fifty years) or Kazuo Ishiguro (award-winning Japanese-British novelist) also. Just a reminder that important and acclaimed works are often a narrow and biased sample of the true richness a culture's literary abundance can offer, and we should work to look past cultural curation--both outside the cultures we're familiar with, and also within our own cultures.

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Yes.

This is a Good Idea. I've taken part in the Puzzling FTCs, and they've opened up my puzzling to include stuff I never would have known about. This site needs diversity even more.

The trouble is, what kind of topic challenge? Ignoring the time part for now, we have several options:

  • Specific book

    This would be a topic challenge about a specific book/series, such as Fizz & Peppers at the Bottom of the World by M. G. King. This would inspire questions about books that nobody has heard of (how many of you heard of the book I just mentioned?)

  • Author

    This would be a topic challenge about a specific author, such as Grant Morris (author of Deacon Leeds and the Pyramid of Symbols). This would have us reading things that, again, nobody knows. (Again: who's heard of him?)

  • Genre

    This would not be , , etc. This would be like science fiction/fantasy, epic poetry, reality fiction, etc. This would get users (like me) who tend to read a specific genre (in my case, SFF) and... not much else. This would help open up horizons.

  • Media type

    This would be , , and . This would help users who (again, like me,) tend to read a specific type of media (in my case, novels).

All of these types have merits. They each open things up in different ways. However, this is, IMO, the best option:

  • All of them

    We can do all of these things as topic challenges! It's the best of all worlds! I really liked when Puzzling decided to allows FTCs that weren't just tags - and we can allow lots of things here. This way, we can all open up our horizons in lots of ways.


P.S.
We should reuse topic challenges for things like media type/genre, but not for author/work.

  • If it turns out that there is a bias towards on of those category types, we could always add some constraints like cycling through the various types (one month a book, the next an author, the next a genre, the next a media type, then start over). – Martin Ender Mar 6 '17 at 9:37
  • @Martin Or just let things evolve naturally and see which category becomes most popular. There are few enough genres and media types, and each of them is broad enough and contains enough popular works, that I wouldn't want to see those categories run as topic challenges too often. It would kind of defeat the purpose if, for instance, we have a dystopic-fiction topic challenge and everyone just asks questions about 1984. – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '17 at 11:15
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    I would also propose "Ask a question about whatever you're reading right now" or "Ask about a book that doesn't have a tag yet" as workable writing challenges, and ones easy to draw people into. It would probably give us a bunch of SF&F titles, but also likely niche-ier, more diverse titles than what we're seeing most of at the moment. – Standback Mar 6 '17 at 11:34
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Each month (month? discuss:), we pick the top answer, which has been selected by the community for its diversification, either culturally, structurally, or really in any positive way, and those of us who wish to do so go ahead and read it. It can be anything - oral tradition, mythology, fantasy, philosophy, you name it - as long as there's enough there to reasonably fill a casual month with reading, it's good.

Here are some proposed guidelines for selecting topics:

  1. Let's only select topics that aren't already on-topic on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange. The rational for this being (a) that many members of this site are also members of SFF and presumably are already reading new SFF books on their own, and (b) this will allow us to further distinguish our site from the rest of the Stack Exchange network.

  2. Let's select bodies of work where the stories/reading material are available for free online. That way no one will be left out if they can't access a physical copy of the material.

  3. Let's avoid bodies of work that already have tags on this site (i.e. things that we're already talking about).

  4. Let's avoid bodies of work that are commonly taught in the western education system (e.g. middle and high school in the US), since many people on this site will have been exposed to them.

  5. In each topic challenge, we should list (a) short stories that introduce the topic, and (b) longer stories for people who want more. That way everyone can participate no matter how much time they have.

  6. And obviously, let's choose bodies of work that will diversify the content on this site (i.e. genres, authors, time-periods, and cultures that we don't talk about often on the site).

Thoughts? Suggestions? Let me know in the comments, or write an answer of your own to propose different guidelines.

In case it wasn't clear, I used the word "guideline" for a reason. There aren't hard and fast rules: these are just some guidelines to (hopefully) make it easier to select bodies of work for topic challenges. If a proposed topic doesn't meet all of these guidelines, then that doesn't mean that the proposed topic will be rejected.

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    Re 1.): I don't think that's a good idea. First of all, there are a whole lot of SFF books that are not being talked about on SFF. Second, I don't think we should exclude a whole genre of books just because they're on topic somewhere else. Especially if we're doing specific book challenges. If the point is to get us reading something that we don't usually read, it will be downvoted as a suggestion, but I don't think we need to ban it. – Mithrandir Mar 7 '17 at 7:39
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    Re 2.): Most books available like that are pirated and illegal. We don't want to condone illegal behavior. Also, obscure books won't be available, which kinda defeats the point of it. – Mithrandir Mar 7 '17 at 7:42
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    I can see the good intentions behind these guidelines, but I think they'll end up being too restrictive and prevent interesting topic challenges that we couldn't anticipate up front. I'd prefer if we just gave it a try without any restrictions but encourage people to vote in favour of content diversity. If the first few topic challenges turn out to fail diversifying the content, we can always think about guidelines later once we know what problems we're trying to solve with them. – Martin Ender Mar 7 '17 at 8:59
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    @Mithrandir I think you're underestimating the availability of free legal ebooks (tor.com shares a free ebook from their publishing roster every month!) and overstating the literal nature of obscurity (there's a difference between "rarely known" and "rarely available," see: Varney the Vampire and most of the rest of the Gutenberg catalog). Obviously if we're asking people to get a book, we're going to point them at an easy, legit source. – BESW Mar 7 '17 at 9:17
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    Strongly disagree with 1). We shouldn't organise our site according to what goes on on other sites. Let's decide topics according to Literature's needs, without worrying about other sites. It's also unfair towards Lit users who aren't SFF users and maybe don't read much sci-fi or fantasy. For the same reason as we shouldn't migrate all sci-fi and fantasy questions away from here, let's not ban sci-fi and fantasy from our topic challenges. I can agree with all the rest, but also think @Martin has a point - why not let this evolve naturally, and find out later on if we need guidelines? – Rand al'Thor Mar 7 '17 at 12:12
  • +1 after your clarifying edit, with the proviso that I still don't agree with 1). – Rand al'Thor Mar 7 '17 at 19:47
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    I actually think 1) is a good idea, but not as a permanent guideline; I like the idea of using it for just the first few challenges and then loosening up on it if the first few are successful. – Torisuda Mar 8 '17 at 19:06
  • I agree with Mith and Rand that guideline (1) should be modified to only exclude topics that are present (in more than a few questions) on Sci Fi. – b_jonas Mar 9 '17 at 11:36

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