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The Short Story According to Joyce Carol Oates and Edgar Allan Poe

I’m teaching a course in “Contemporary American Short Stories” this spring, and, in effort to understand what makes a good short story from the ground up, I’ve been reading quite a lot written by writers who are acknowledged masters of the short story form. Joyce Carol Oates in her 1998 essay “Beginnings: The Origins and Art of the Short Story” is especially illuminating.

Now, of course, since ancient times English teachers have been happy to elucidate the scaffolding of stories for their students.  A story has a plot, for example, which often follows the pattern of a conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Stories are told from the point of view of character in the story, these days either in the first person “I” or from the point of view of the third person, a she or he. The central character, the protagonist, in a story will often have an antagonist. Characters can be round or flat. When you describe a story in terms of these seventh-grade basics, it all sounds rather formulaic.

That is perhaps one reason why fiction writers seldom look at stories in these ways. What we call a “short story” is such an accommodating vehicle for all manner of styles, genres, lengths, etc. that few practitioners are inclined to try to codify it. One might say the essence of a short story is its flexibility. And this is where Oates is helpful: she’s willing to plunge in where few pros dare to tread – that is, to offer a definition of short story.

As Oates points out, it starts with length, the usual criterion, to be sure, but there is no generally accepted length for a short story. What’s the dividing line between a long short story and a novella, for instance? Who knows? I’ve written two “novellas” in my life. Both began as short stories and then outgrew their container, but don’t ask me when the story turned into the novella.

Photo of Twitter author Arjun Basu.

Twitter author Arjun Basu.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Internet has seen the rise of the micro-story, a genre known as “fast fiction” or “sudden fiction” – usually defined as a story of less than 500 words. And there is the phenomenon of Arjun Basu, the author of “twisters” – complete stories crammed into the 140-character limits of Twitter. Basu pumps four or five of these miniatures out into the world each day.

Much to her credit then, Oates is willing to take a stand and say that for her a short story needs to be under 10,000 words.  And she adds two other vital criteria:

…it represents a concentration of imagination, and not an expansion;

…no matter its mysteries or its experimental properties, it achieves closure – meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader understands why.

These work for me. On the matter of concentrating the imagination, she quotes Edgar Allan Poe’s review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1842:

A famous artist has constructed his tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.

For Poe, then, a short story is more like a poem than a novel. The secret heart of a story is its unity of effect. The modern-day self help guru Stephen Covey, of The Seven habits of Highly Effective People fame, would have been proud of Poe. “Begin with the end in mind” is Covey’s Habit #2.

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Story theorist Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s view of the writer as the ultimate rationalist who constructs a story to achieve an emotional effect upon the reader is controversial. As we’ll see down the road at 317am, other writers do not approach writing a story in this way. Yet Poe and Oates in my view have hit on a strong core principle for the short story – call it the principle of exclusion. As Oates points out, this idea that leads to directly to the great modernists of the short story: Chekhov, Joyce, Henry James, Hemingway.

Exclusion works in two ways: first, what is left out of the story, the emotions the author artfully suggests between the lines and leaves it to the reader to intuit, can be as important as what’s in the story; second, all the details that do get into a story need to be significant or telling details. Poe was right. In a good story every word contributes to the story’s unity of effect.

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