Edgar Allen Poe - The Raven

photo credit: Ian Burt via Flickr

There would be no National Short Story Month without Edgar Allan Poe, the man at the fountainhead of genre. In his criticism and his stories themselves, Poe essentially defined what the short story should do: become a bomb in the reader’s hand that explodes with meaning before it can be set down.

Poe believed a story should deliver a unity of emotional effect: sorrow, joy, terror, realization, longing, whatever, and that a story’s every sentence, as well as its characters, narrator, shape, etc., should work toward this same unity. Likewise, he thought the short story was the perfect medium to achieve this unity—long enough to draw the reader in but short enough to be read in one sitting. Most importantly, Poe thought this unity enabled short stories to go beyond the moral lessons of the tale and carry the weight of emotional truth, things previously reserved for “bigger” works of art.

All short story writers owe a debt to Poe.

Certainly, the short story has evolved in 150 years, but much remains the same. Short story writers still seek a unity of effect, a resonance, be it through dramatization, implication, juxtaposition, or semantic gymnastics. Short story writers still work every line and every element of a story to achieve an end.

And that means all short story writers owe a debt to Poe. Because regardless of where the short story goes from here, it was Poe who first clarified the form and set a worthy goal at its center, one we can each still write toward in our own way: to build a bomb with a brief but intricately woven fuse, one capable of triggering terrible and beautiful explosions inside a reader’s brain.