So What the Heck Is a Short Story? (A Dip into Lit Crit, A Prelude, before Our Swan Dive into O’Connor’s Stories)

I am amazed that so few readers and writers today have a clear idea of what this genre is supposed to look like, feel like, sound like, not to mention how long it should take to read one, AND (GASP)! What kind of impression a great short story customarily makes upon the reader.

Truth is, it’s a confluence of human DNA/attention span/and a cellular intuitive “knowing it when they read it.”

poe220px-Graham's_April_1846_Poe_Phil_CompOur wonderful, brilliant, highly original nutcase, Edgar Allen Poe planted the flag for the genre, outlined its gears and parts, nailed it succinctly and nobody since–so far– has supplanted him in his wisdom and keen-eyed analysis of how this short narrative functions, its essential gears and apparatus.  Yes, he’s been dead a long time but the thoughts about the genre which he codified in his (perhaps tongue in cheek, we’ll never know) essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” published in the literary mag Graham’s Magazine in 1846 has survived and only gained stature and respect as time marches on.

Poe was a genius and a hoot.  The crazy things he did, the amazing things he wrote.  We should be thankful, I suppose he was kicked out of West Point and couldn’t think of anything else he could do but write about literature (criticism) and write scintillating, disturbing poems and stories. At any rate his theories do not limit or circumscribe a writer, oh no, ample room for everything under the sun as Poe tells us what a short story is and how it should make us “feel”  (anything from base to sublime!).


The reason we need to bone up on Poe”s theories about the short story is because he provided the literary foundation, or milieu, from which Flannery O’Connor’s stories sprang.

Totally different spirits, different kinds of authors, for sure. But think of it this way: Poe was laying down basic principles about how the human heart and mind respond to short narratives.

“The Philosophy of Composition” is free many places online, including Get it, read it, if you haven’t. It’s great fun.

Also! Not to be missed, if you are as fervent as I am about such things, THE LIBRARY OF AMERICA has a great volume on Poe’s essays and criticism.

O’Connor was no left foot ignoramus when it came to the history of American Lit, Literary Theory, and never rushed to publish.

flannery_oconnor6 young

In her view she was writing for God, the ages, and was no starry eyed sucker just dying to see her name in print. She was a serious scholar of American Lit who learned all she could about method and masters in order to fulfill her mission in life, which she saw as serving God as a flinty-eyed prophet, the hell with what people wanted to hear.

The absolutely stupefying thing is that she was so good at her craft that, in spite of a tough vinegar message, she was eventually universally acclaimed and now is considered perhaps the best American practitioner of the short story genre in the 20th century.

foc_oconnor_iowa_1947_spring_001 at iowaMirabile Dictu.



O’Connor at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 1947

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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5 Responses to So What the Heck Is a Short Story? (A Dip into Lit Crit, A Prelude, before Our Swan Dive into O’Connor’s Stories)

  1. Kev says:

    Love the pics 🙂


  2. Ana S. says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, will definitely look up “The Philosophy of Composition” – sounds like a must-read.


  3. kathyroydon says:

    You are absolutely right about Poe. (I’m a great fan of his work.) Thank you for recommending this book! It sounds like a fascinating and useful read! -KR


    • Poe wrote some stunning and ground breaking literary criticism and theoretical essays on literature. Often over-looked, The Library of America has gathered them into a separate volume of his works and I dip into the book from time to time for “refreshment.” They are still very stimulating and still make enormous sense. 🙂 Thanks for your nice comment, Kathy.


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