Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Today, many people believe that the conventions of literature are as old as literature itself. Such is not the case. H. G. Wells experimented with many approaches to telling short stories and lamented the standardization of the form that began to develop during the later part of his career, believing that experimentation kept short stories innovative and intriguing.
Even earlier, Edgar Allan Poe also struggled with some of the prejudices of his day concerning what was acceptable in writing fiction. As Kevin J. Hayes, the editor of The Annotated Poe, points out, in a note on the text of Poe's “debut tale,” “Metzengerstein”:
[Poe] added the subtitle [“A Tale in Imitation of the German”] to forestall complaints about his gothicism or, as the gothic style was also known, “Germanism.” In his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe offers a defense of his Germanism: 'If in many of my publications terror has been the thesis,' he observes, 'I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul' (I, 6).
Although, as Hayes notes, “Eastern European settings are characteristic of much gothic fiction,” American authors pressed for the use of American settings. The West, in particular, was considered fertile ground for American stories. Possibly, they encouraged American settings in an effort to establish a literature that was distinctly American, a feat that is often attributed to Mark Twain. On this point, Poe took issue as well. Although he agreed, Hayes says, that “American authors should strive for originality,” he also believed that “they must be free to use whatever settings they wish” and thought, further, that “imaginary landscapes have greater potential than actual ones,” setting many of his own tales in fantastic realms.
In literature, as in all things, conventions are necessary; they impose standards and, therefore, bring order to a discipline or an enterprise, making predictions possible. In reading horror stories, readers expect certain elements to be present and for particular incidents to occur. Often, such stories follow a formula familiar to readers of the genre, and authors depart from this formula at their own peril. However, as Poe and other writers have pointed out, conventions can also be too restrictive, thwarting innovation and creativity. Occasionally, as in the cases of Wells, Poe, surrealist writers, and authors, such as William S. Burroughs, conventions are set aside or violated, and new approaches to creative writing emerge.
However, for the most part, the marketplace is the final arbiter of what is published, and publishers want what their customers, readers, want: conventional, if not formulaic, stories that are largely predictable (but allow enough plot twists to maintain interest). It would be absurd to suggest that Poe was not innovative or creative. Not only did he invent the modern horror story and the detective story, but he was also an early practitioner of science fiction and adventure. His writing also identifies several personality disorders, including bipolar disorder, that were unidentified in his day.
At the same time, however, as Hayes observes, Poe made changes to his stories for no other reason than to make them more marketable:
Poe made few changes to “Berenice” when he included the story in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, but when he revised it in 1845 for the Broadway Journal, he softened the tale considerably. Poe scholars tend to assume that every time Poe revised a story he did so for aesthetic reasons. With “Berenice,” his reasons were pragmatic.
There is a “golden mean,” Aristotle suggested in his Eudemian Ethics, between two extremes, and it is this meeting place, the philosopher suggested, that minds should aspire to reach. Poe's fiction suggests that he is content to compromise at times, on some points, but not always. As a writer, he has his principles.