June 30, 2018KR BlogUncategorized

Against the Single Effect

A common theory widely taught in creative writing classes is Edgar Allen Poe’s idea of the single effect, which argues that short stories should build towards producing one pre-conceived emotional effect in the reader. The source of the theory is Poe’s review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, published in Graham’s Magazine in May of 1842:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a 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. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

One can see the theory at work in Poe’s own stories, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which establishes a mood of gloom and suspense in its very first sentence (“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”) and maintains this all the way to the story’s climax.

And yet, no matter how masterful Poe’s own writing may be, it’s worth asking whether we in the 21st century should really accept uncritically the idea implicit in his theory that a writer is like a god, with a “pre-established design” that can affect a reader with exactly the intended emotion. However highly we may regard ourselves, the postmodern late-twentieth century has clearly proven that a reader’s emotional response doesn’t always match our intended effect. In fact, as Roland Barthes demonstrated in his critical work S/Z, in which he conducts a structural analysis of Honoré de Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine,” a text never has just one single meaning but instead a multiplicity, operating on different levels and often clashing, but which together “create a kind of network, a topos through which the entire text passes (or rather, in passing, becomes a text).”

In S/Z, Barthes identifies five specific codes of meaning—the hermeneutic, the proairetic, the semantic, the symbolic, and the cultural—and demonstrates sentence by sentence how they operate within “Sarrasine”. Regardless, though, of whether we agree with his categorizations (or even understand them), his larger point stands, that a text like Balzac’s obviously has more than just a single effect. For the story’s opening paragraph, for example, Barthes spends ten pages exploring the various overlapping codes of meaning, from the hermeneutic enigmas of the title character’s identity, to the semantic connotations of the snow and the moon, to the symbolic antithesis between the indoor and the outdoor, to the larger cultural references to the Dance of the Dead and the immorality of Paris. Far from building towards a single emotional effect, each sentence in this paragraph contains multiple meanings that can create very different effects for different readers. Someone aware of the cultural significance of the Dance of the Dead might have one interpretation, whereas someone aware of the symbolic importance of the indoor/outdoor distinction might have a completely different one. How can we say then there is a single effect present within the narrative?

As a literary critic, Barthes was ultimately interested in the role of the reader and not the writer—and as his famous essay “The Death of the Author” makes clear, he believed the critic should disregard the author’s intentions entirely. As writers, we may understandably feel that the author is very much alive and may therefore be resistant to Barthes’ theories. But we can still take from him the idea that a single effect is impossible. Even Poe’s stories, for example, operate on so many other levels beyond what he intended—“The Purloined Letter,” for example, is often read by critics as an allegory for literary interpretation and not just a simple detective story.

Once we as writers accept this, we can revel in the multiple possible interpretations of our own work, and consciously write stories not with a single effect in mind but with the understanding that each word we use carries multiple significations. Thus, even when we write simple detective stories or family dramas, we should be conscious of the codes of meaning beyond the surface-level emotions we hope to elicit, the connotations of the words we use, or their symbolic meanings, or the cultural significations of each of the details we include. We can of course never know every possible level of meaning. But by writing with the knowledge that our text has these multiple levels and therefore multiple possible effects, rather than just a single one, we can create more dynamic and complex works of fiction.