I'd like to start by mentioning that I'm an active, high-rep user on several SE sites, including ELU, Philosophy, Writers and Parenting. I supported this site in its formation stage, and have been doing my best to contribute in the hopes if it getting off the ground.

However, every time I post here I end up regretting it. In particular, I recently spent some time and effort crafting an answer to this question: What is the distinction between "literary fiction" vs. "popular fiction"? I cited references, and when critiques were posted on the answer I edited to respond to them. However, the answer continues to garner downvotes, without any additional comments. Meanwhile the highest ranked answer neither cites sources nor provides examples, is explicitly a personal opinion, and is, in substance, not dramatically different than my own.

I don't begrudge that answer its upvotes, and I understand that every SE has its own internal standards for a good answer. But in my opinion, downvotes aren't for an answer you don't prefer, it's for an answer that has actual identifiable problems, and --especially for a SE trying to build a user base --you describe those problems so that the user has an opportunity to improve. So my question is this: What makes for a strong answer on this site, and conversely, when should an answer be downvoted?

  • 1
    Highly related: How can I write good answers? (a FAQ-proposed post with a currently still incomplete answer from a moderator).
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 3, 2017 at 22:22
  • Worth noting that other than targeting specific people, people can vote however they like. We can't make any rules about how people "should" vote because we intentionally have no way of controlling that. The only question you can feasibly ask about your answer is how it can be improved.
    – user111
    Oct 4, 2017 at 12:59
  • 1
    Hey, @Hamlet, can I reopen this question? I think it's asking for more than a generic advice page, and I also think closing it may only serve to shut down an important discussion.
    – user80
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:13
  • @Zyera sure, but I would recommend editing this so it is distinct from the generic How do I write good answers page. (I originally edited the question, the edit got rolled back by someone other than the OP, and I didn't feel like arguing).
    – user111
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:21
  • 2
    @Hamlet I think the rollback was appropriate and correct, and that its context is enough to differentiate it from a generic help page. I've gone ahead and reopened it.
    – user80
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:25

1 Answer 1


The problem is is that the question--what is the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction--can't be answered with common sense. The common sense way to answer the question is to look up some one's definition of "literary fiction" and "popular fiction" and write an answer based on that. Your answer cites a definition written by a science fiction author; other answers cite definitions written by the OP. Quite frankly there is no difference between the two. It doesn't matter if the definition comes from a professor of English or someone I met on the street; what matters is whether an argument can be built in support of the definition. An English Professor is as capable of making up a definition without explaining it as anyone else. It is the explanation that matters, not the definition.

Every answer this question has received doesn't seem to take into account that:

  1. Definitions change over time.
  2. People... not mysterious processes... are responsible for definitions changing over time.
  3. Not everyone uses the same definitions.

Most of the answers write in a passive voice (when you write "it is widely considered that" you don't have to specify who is doing the considering).

I've been encouraging people to write answers to that question using examples. One reason why I've been doing this is because once you start talking about a specific example of a book, you'll find that defining "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" is a lot more contentious than the answers portray it as. There are debates. People take sides.

when critiques were posted on the answer I edited to respond to them

As someone who wrote some of those critiques, in my mind the edits you made haven't really responded to my critiques. For example, you're still using the passive voice in your answer ("Literary fiction is often considered more prestigious").

Other people have also left critiques that as far as I can tell have not been responded to. Peter's comment is well worth reading and addressing:

Many standard elements of literary fiction were also sparked by a standard-setting literary predecessor — James Joyce was one of the first writers to use stream of consciousness, and many writers adapted the technique after him. I don't think this is a distinction between genre and literary fiction. Maybe a handful of writers used stream of consciousness before Joyce, but similarly a few authors wrote epic fantasy before Tolkien, and Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't the first writer of mystery stories.

This also goes to show that people vote for different reasons: I can only speak for myself, not the other person who downvoted the question nor for the four people who upvoted it. Voting is intentionally private; other than preventing people from targeting specific individuals, there are no rules about what can be voted on. We can't set policies about what gets upvoted or downvoted.

Meanwhile the highest ranked answer neither cites sources nor provides examples, is explicitly a personal opinion, and is, in substance, not dramatically different than my own.

Well, the one thing going for that answer is it is explicit about where its definition comes from. I still am not a fan of the answer--definitions don't depend on one person--but in that respect, I think it can be said to be better than the rest of the answers posted.

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    I think this answer is both needlessly harsh and not, practically speaking, very helpful advice. All answers about literature are going to have to make some set of assumptions. Challenging and expanding upon each assumption made is beyond impractical for a site like this. While you might disagree with the framing and assumptions of a given answer, the most we can ask is that people be clear about which ones they're using, and that's sufficient to make the answer good enough. Their answer is fairly clear, and is a really good example of an answer I'd like to see more of for these reasons.
    – user80
    Oct 4, 2017 at 10:36
  • @Zyera but the answer isn't clear about its assumptions. Its written mostly in the passive tense.
    – user111
    Oct 4, 2017 at 12:01
  • 3
    Huh? How does being written in the passive tense prevent it from mentioning its assumptions?
    – user80
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:09
  • @Zyera when you say "it is widely considered that", you don't have to say who is doing the considering. That's an important assumption; you're taking your personal beliefs and generalizing them. But the top voted answer makes that clear; this answer doesn't. Which is why I think it's fair that this answer is below the top voted answer score wise.
    – user111
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:31
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    Downvoting based on that sets a threshold far too high to be practically achievable. All answers will always contain unchallenged and extremely important assumptions. If you disagree with one of those assumptions, state that - but downvoting because of that really seems like it sets a needlessly high (and often impossible) barrier to writing good answers. (It also already is a statement of assumption, because it presents the facts it's using, and those are facts you're free to reject - it's just a matter of how it's worded, which is ultimately a nitpick and not a major caveat.)
    – user80
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:49

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