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The on-topic guide includes the following items:

  1. Questions about how to interpret a specific scene, quote, theme, plot point, etc. in a work of literature.
  2. Specific questions about the publishing process, literary conventions, or tropes in literature.
  3. Story and quote identification questions: if you can't remember a story or a quote, we can help you. Please be as detailed as possible when asking these questions.

To begin with, we should clarify what we mean by "a work of literature." Most people assume that this means "books" (plus maybe poetry and Shakespeare), which is excessively narrow. There are all kinds of written works (including, for example, song lyrics) that we accept questions on. Even some unwritten works (e.g. oral tradition) can be on topic here. We should give examples of what constitutes "literature" so that people know that they can ask about them.

There are things we cover that aren't addressed in the guide, either. For example, we address things like book collecting, literary awards, book care, etc. I'd also like to see the site scope include things like content analysis and literature-related technology (although we haven't gotten a lot of questions about those areas yet, so it's too soon to tell how well those would work here).

Can we expand the on-topic guide?

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    Re clarifying what we mean by a work of literature: the same on-topic page does say explicitly that "What counts as a work of literature for the purposes of allowed questions on this site? We don't have a specific answer--we're still trying to work this out--but questions have been successfully asked about written stories, comic books, plays, and poetry." Maybe we could add to this list, but we won't be able to pin down a proper definition. – Rand al'Thor Oct 20 '17 at 22:41
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I suggest:

Please look around to see if your question has been asked before. If you already know the answer, it’s also OK to ask and answer your own question.

Unfortunately, we haven't been around for that long and therefore don't have an authoritative definition of what is and what isn't on-topic. Given the extensive philosophical debate over what counts as literature, we expect it will be quite some time before we can make any sort of authoritative determination regarding our scope. What counts as a work of literature for the purposes of allowed questions on this site? We don't have a specific answer -- we're still trying to work this out -- but questions have been successfully asked about novels, short stories, comic books, plays, poetry, song lyrics, oral traditions, and more.

However, we can give an incomplete list of topics that we mostly agree are on- and off-topic. Keep in mind that this list is incomplete; if your question isn't here, then you should try asking it on the main site and seeing what happens. Also keep in mind that this is not an authoritative document; should community consensus change, then the advice here could become out of date.

Topics that will most likely be considered on-topic include:

  1. Questions about how to interpret a specific scene, quote, theme, plot point, etc. in a work of literature.

  2. Specific questions about the publishing process, literary awards and conventions, book collecting, or tropes in literature.

  3. Specific questions about books as physical items, e.g. how to properly maintain and take care of them.

  4. Story and quote identification questions: if you can't remember a story or a quote, we can help you. Please be as detailed as possible when asking these questions.

Topics that will most likely be closed as off-topic include:

  1. Questions about the English language in general, not just as it relates to literature or specific works of literature. Try asking on the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange or English Language Learners Stack Exchange instead.

  2. Questions about creating literature yourself. Try asking on the Writers Stack Exchange.

  3. Questions asking for literature recommendations: try our chat rooms or a different literature website instead.

If your question is not specifically on-topic for Literature Stack Exchange, it may be on topic for another Stack Exchange site. If no site currently exists that will accept your question, you may commit to or propose a new site at Area 51, the place where new Stack Exchange communities are democratically created.

Here's the full list of changes I made from the currently existing text in the help centre. The ones in bold text are those that specifically address issues you've raised in your question here.

  • Minor edit to the first paragraph, adding "If you already know the answer, ..." rather than mentioning self-answering as a non sequitur.
  • Merging the two paragraphs about "what is literature" - no point saying the same thing twice, or in having one of these paragraphs intruding between the two numbered lists.
  • Removing the sentence "In some circles, the definition of literature has been politicized to exclude certain cultures." Although well-meaning, this sentence is (ironically) itself politicising; it also comes off as slightly snobbish (we talk about literature better than people in those other circles) and hostile towards people with different views (some of whom are site members, and should be 'represented' by the help centre as much as any other site members). Not allowing snobbery towards underrepresented cultures doesn't have to mean antagonising people from those "circles" as soon as they join the site. (I know this change doesn't relate to your question, but that sentence has been making me uncomfortable for a while.)
  • Extending the list of types of literature which have been successfully asked about. I changed "written stories" to "novels, short stories", since the former is so broad it could also cover plays and poetry, and also added "song lyrics, oral traditions, and more."
  • Extending the list of "cultural literature" topics in the second numbered item. I added literary awards and book collecting here.
  • Adding a new bullet point for books as physical items. This is number 3 in the first list.
  • Unifying sentence structure in the bits recommending other sites: "Try asking on ..." in both places, rather than this in one and "you may want to try ..." in the other.
  • Adding a link to the list of all Stack Exchange sites, for people who need to find another one.

I also thought of a few more possible changes which I haven't made in the above text.

  • Reshuffling the order. Should the paragraph about searching and self-answering really be right at the start, the first thing people read when they want to know what's on-topic here?
  • Adding links to the help centres of other sites when we recommend people to them. On the one hand, we don't want to send people to ask off-topic questions there; on the other hand, anyone who's already reading our help centre is likely to check theirs too before posting there.
  • Adding something like "We accept questions about literature from any culture or country in the world." - a clear statement about our scope to replace the unnecessarily hostile and judgmental sentence I removed in my draft above.

I didn't add anything about "content analysis and literature-related technology", because I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this, and I don't think we've had enough successful questions on these topics to call them on-topic yet.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

  • I mean, we are a site about a political topic (literature). We aren't really politicizing anything, it was already politicized. And I do think it is important to explain why there is difficulty in defining literature: mentioning how the definition of literature is political is critical to any explanation of why we are finding this so difficult. – user111 Oct 22 '17 at 18:54
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    @Hamlet I strongly disagree that literature is inherently a political topic. It can be used to explore political issues, sure - but if people just love reading books and hate political subjects, we don't want to turn those people away by unnecessarily politicising our site. Nor, in fact, do we want to turn people away who feel that "literature" should exclude certain cultures. Let them ask and answer questions only from the cultures they're interested in; as long as they don't try to push their views on the site, I don't care what those views are. – Rand al'Thor Oct 22 '17 at 19:02
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    And that, btw (pushing one's political views on the site) is exactly what you're doing by including that sentence in the site's on-topic page. When people wonder what Literature SE is about, let them see a list of topics they can ask about and topics they can't, not a political statement. Make political statements in your profile, or in your posts, or on meta, but for goodness's sake not in the on-topic page which should represent the site and all its users equally! – Rand al'Thor Oct 22 '17 at 19:05
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    That's the point. Saying what is on and off topic is a political statement. (See, for example, how colonizers oppress cultures by not considering their literature literature). If you hate political subjects and like reading... our site isn't for readers, it's for people who want to talk about reading. And if you hate political subjects, you're going to have a very hard time talking about any sort of literature. – user111 Oct 22 '17 at 19:07
  • (This discussion was continued in chat.) – Rand al'Thor Oct 22 '17 at 21:22
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    @Hamlet I've thought about it some more, and rephrased my answer slightly. If you want to say that allowing literature from all cultures is a political statement, then OK, we have to be 'political' in some sense - but making a political statement doesn't require disrespecting those who disagree (in fact, on SE, it requires not doing so). – Rand al'Thor Oct 23 '17 at 22:21
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    and how exactly does that statement insult or disrespect anyone? It is written in the passive tense; it is not accusing anyone of anything. It is merely saying that an event happened/is happening: who caused that event or who is suffering from that event is left completely ambiguous. – user111 Oct 24 '17 at 0:59
  • @Hamlet You of all people should understand that a statement can impart more meaning than the literal definitions of its words, which may come across regardless of whether the writer intended it to or not. Being written in the passive tense ("X was done") doesn't mean it isn't being judgemental about the people who did X. It's not directly insulting as such, but it's subtly pushing a political opinion onto the entire site. As a user, you can express your political opinions wherever you want; as a mod, you have the power to soapbox in the help centre, so you have to be very careful not to. – Rand al'Thor Oct 24 '17 at 13:33
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To begin with, we should clarify what we mean by "a work of literature." Most people assume that this means "books" (plus maybe poetry and Shakespeare), which is excessively narrow. There are all kinds of written works (including, for example, song lyrics) that we accept questions on. Even some unwritten works (e.g. oral tradition) can be on topic here. We should give examples of what constitutes "literature" so that people know that they can ask about them.

I mean, the problem is that we really don't have a good definition of literature at the moment. There are many ways of defining literature, but we haven't really come to a decision about which way of defining literature is best for our site. So until we can come to a consensus about say where to draw the line on questions about music, we can't really include a definitive answer in the on-topic guide.

This is why the on-topic guide is actually very cadge about what counts as on-topic, and specifically describes that list as an incomplete list:

However, we can give an incomplete list of topics that we mostly agree are on- and off-topic. Keep in mind that this list is incomplete; if your question isn't here, then you should try asking it on the main site and seeing what happens. Also keep in mind that this is not an authoritative document; should community consensus change, then the advice here could become out of date.

Topics that will most likely be considered on-topic include:

I also think that questions about things such as awards are included in the sentence "Specific questions about the publishing process, literary conventions, or tropes in literatue." But if that sentence is unclear, then I'm not opposed to changing it.

I'd also like to see the site scope include things like content analysis and literature-related technology (although we haven't gotten a lot of questions about those areas yet, so it's too soon to tell how well those would work here).

Those sound like really interesting topics. I would encourage you to ask such questions on the main site. (I would also encourage you to spend some time reading about concepts such as distant reading and the digital humanities, to ensure that at least someone is capable of giving those questions good answers). I don't really think there's any rule or reason that would make those questions off-topic; as far as I can tell the reason we don't have those questions is because no one has asked them yet.

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