Revising Theory: Poe's Legacy in Short Story Criticism

By Van Achter, Erik | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Revising Theory: Poe's Legacy in Short Story Criticism

Van Achter, Erik, DQR Studies in Literature

The "Splintering Frame"

In his essay in Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, Norman Friedman calls for a critical consensus to ensure the future of short story theory:

In discussing short story theory, we have a tendency to talk at crosspurposes. I do not mean simply a tendency to disagree; I mean, rather, an apparent difficulty in agreeing on what it is we are disagreeing about.1

For better or for worse, Friedman's plea appeared at a time when literary theory, particularly in the United States, was undergoing a process of fragmentation along the fault lines of modern identity politics, in which the identity categories and identifications of the writer, reader and theorist came to serve as categories that were not only political but also theoretical.2 The ascendancy of identity politics in the wake of the rise of post-structuralist and post-modern theories increasingly demanded what might be called a poetics of identity: it was as though political identity categories necessitated the formulation of corresponding critical theories. Literary scholars were thus compelled to take part in the politics of identity3 and to constitute increasingly circumscribed, politically charged sub-fields of literary research, at the very moment that Friedman was advocating the inverse of this fragmentation - for consensus, agreement and cooperation - in the field of short story theory.

In the face of this "splintering frame" of literary studies, short story theory was forced to abandon or at least call into question the unifying, universalizing critical framework defined by the tripartite "author, text, reader" structure that had been introduced and reinforced by short story theorists of the preceding era, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe and his disciple Brander Matthews. The very idea of a determinate textual form that could be defined in terms of intratextual, immanent characteristics and relations had itself become untenable with the decline of formalistic literary methods in the period we now call post-modern, and the rise of methods that admit and refer to the extra-textual (post-structuralism, post-colonialism) or emphasize textual autonomy and indeterminacy (deconstruction). The splintering frame4 of post-modern literary studies questioned whether the "short story as form" was merely an illusion produced by a particular, historical cognitive frame that no longer had any real existence. The historical and literary evidence suggests an affirmative answer to this question, for the differences between the short story and the novel, like the former's purported affinities with the poem, were rather numinous and indefinable. For example, an article by John Gerlach explicitly addressed the indeterminacy of the short story's relationships with poetry and longer prose forms.5 Yet even without having been rigorously and exclusively defined before the advent of post-modernism, the short story had already achieved acceptance as a specific genre of prose fiction. The relationships between the short story, the poem and the novel had proved, to a degree, both ineffable and enduring. The dependence upon these comparisons (as well as the indisputable critical presence of the reader) in the articulation of the short story genre has resulted in a degree of critical stasis: even in the wake of post-modernism, short story theory continues to be defined in relation to these other genres; the genre of the short story continues to resist or elude definition as an independently defined, closed and unique literary form. In other words, the fundamental problematic of short story criticism - that of genre definition - continues to be posed in the same or similar terms to what it has been since Poe. The present article will trace this critical problematic in reverse by demonstrating the continuing endurance and pervasive influence of Poe's seminal contributions to short story theory.

The sterile position in Poe's Legacy

Even after the processes of fragmentation had run their course in postmodernism, the skeletal framework of a unified genre still remained for the short story: it was still accepted that the short story was neither novel nor poem and that it somehow produced an effect in the reader. …

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