I understand there is a limited list of common reasons to declare a question as off-topic, and that we have to stretch some terms to provide coverage, but I am genuinely confused by what is meant by lit crit on this site.

In this thread What does the expression "old soldier" mean?, I see nothing that even approaches lit crit. Furthermore, there is every reason to believe that the question can be addressed constructively from well-sourced examples. I don't see what distinguishes this question from any other question that provides an example of the usage they are curious about.

As long as the subject of the discussion is the phrase in question, and not the peculiarities of the author, I don't see any lit crit, regardless of how much textural context is needed to support an answer. Some questions do require a lot of context when meanings have changed over time, literary styles have changed over time, and the cultures reflected in the dialog have changed over time. These issues may need to be addressed in the answer; and I feel it detracts from the site if we feel forced to avoid them in our answers.

  1. What role does needing extensive context play in determining lit crit?
  2. Is discussing usage with respect to literary style off-topic?
  3. Are answers pertaining to literary dialog more susceptible to being labeled lit crit? If so is this a problem?
  • 2
    I think the people there are using 'lit crit' or 'lyrics are off-topic' as a way to say that it is 'primarily opinion based'. For example, "what did the author mean by X?". Totally on-topic would be, in contrast, "Is there a phrase 'pompatus of love' and what does it mean?" (overheard in song lyrics). We don't know what is in one individual's head (an author) but we do have a better idea what many people (and dictionaries) might mean by a word or phrase.
    – Mitch
    Nov 20, 2016 at 19:24
  • I recently visited the question in question, and added block quotes to it containing the two excerpts from Trollope's story where "old soldier" appeared. It may be that because the close-voters previously couldn't see those quotations, they assumed that the context in which the phrase appeared was complex enough to require a degree of literary interpretation (which they viewed as "literary criticism"). To me, that view makes no sense. The question is about usage and meaning, and the story in which the term appears is incidental to the question of what the implications of the term itself are.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 21, 2016 at 10:20
  • I've just retracted my close-vote after reading the edit. However, you need to note that the original question was poorly worded and "lit crit" in the comment by FumbleFingers was made before @SvenYargs included some example sentences. I believe FF meant by "lit crit" that we can't answer the question as it is based on the original question before edit and without knowing the full story. I've voted to close the question as "primarily opinion-based" because there was nothing that could tell us how "old soldier" could have been used. The Q should have included more sentneces before commented
    – user140086
    Nov 22, 2016 at 12:31

1 Answer 1


Lit crit is the examination and analysis of literature as reduced to a set of "texts", i.e., as works unrelated to the usual classifications like novel, play, poetry, etc. The inquiry is performed through the lens of literary theory, a method of applying various social theories (e.g., marxism, feminism, gender studies, etc.) to the texts. There is some claim that lit crit is the application of the theory, but it would be hard to make a distinction since both are written in identical and impenetrable jargon that is so abstract and metaphoric that it can have no meaning discernible to the reader. (That is, the only possible method of understanding would have to be to query the critic directly.) For an example, try typing "Sian Ede" in the search box.

My favorite explication:

Q: What's the difference between a literary theorist and a mafia don?
A: A literary theorist makes you an offer you can't understand.

As used here, the term is a misnomer applied to questions that ask about the interpretation of a passage of a work as that passage is related to the overall theme or deeper meaning of the work. There are a few works that would have definite answers (say, Pilgrim's Progress), but for most literature, any answer would be hopelessly opinion-based.

If the lit crit charge were used solely to close questions that are thus hopeless to answer -- many of which are motivated, I suspect, by the approaching deadline of a school assignment -- that would be fine. But the charge is also used in an attempt to discourage any discussion of context for the understanding of specific words, terms, or phrases.

The old soldier answer is a case in point. Understanding this term requires some understanding of the class structure of Trollope's day. In another recent example, you're not likely to understand the wording of a passage of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman without knowing about Talleyrand's contribution to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

In my opinion, careful judgment is required to distinguish between a question that seeks an explication of the context of a work of literature and a question that seeks the understanding of the language of a work, when that understanding in turn requires understanding some context.

(Of course, in the case of lit crit itself, there is no discernible distinction. Again, search for Sean Ede.)

  • I absolutely agree with your answer. As commented above, "lit crit" seems to have been mentioned by FumbleFingers before SvenYargs included some sentences. The real question should be "Was the question answerable based on the original question before the edit and why?" I think four users voted to close it not because it was related with "lit crit", but because it was not answerable without knowing some context. One reason was "unclear" and three reasons (including my vote, now retracted) was primarily opinion-based. I don't see any issue with their voting to close it before the edit was made
    – user140086
    Nov 22, 2016 at 12:44
  • @Rathony The OP had originally provided a Google Books link, but clicking though didn't bring up the passage, perhaps because of GB's blocking multiple views from one source (but that's a guess). Nonetheless finding the passages just required pasting the link to a new tab. I still don't see why this type of question is assumed to be doomed to attract only LQAs moreso than any other. The point about not doing someone's homework is valid. I wouldn't be likely to recognize a HW question.
    – Phil Sweet
    Nov 22, 2016 at 13:40
  • @PhilSweet If the OP had originally provided a link, it should be visible now in the edit history. I can't see anything. The only context in the original Q is "the character in question comes across as a sort of pushy freeloader." My question is is it enough to answer a question about the meaning of "old boy" used to a woman by men? I seriously doubt it. That was my decision and other users might differ. The key issue is what was in the question at the time of voting, not what has been added to make it more on-topic. I don't think this question has anything to do with "lit crit", either.
    – user140086
    Nov 22, 2016 at 13:45
  • "the interpretation of a passage of a work as that passage is related to the overall theme or deeper meaning of the work. " That is a workable distinction. I'd like to see it in bold, and added to the FAQs maybe. As I understand it, it does not prejudice any of the three situations I asked about.
    – Phil Sweet
    Nov 22, 2016 at 13:45
  • Are you getting us to search of Sean or Sian Ede? Nov 24, 2016 at 18:15
  • @BladorthinTheGrey The latter. Sean is her nonexistent brother. (My error, for which I blame the drugs.)
    – deadrat
    Nov 24, 2016 at 19:08

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