The real horror story is how poorly he's taught in schools.

Imagine the school board meeting — the kids are reading some dangerous literature in English class. Murder, drunkenness, torture, madness, and not even a sliver of moral instruction. If the students weren’t already so resentful, they might even like what they’ve been given to read, it’s so cool. Imagine the class discussion about the theme of, say, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and that one boy with a heavy metal T-shirt in the back finally joining the conversation with his interpretation: “Some motherfuckers just have it comin’.”

2009 marks the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the most famed and influential writer in American history. Not only does his work entirely limn the culture, but he also created no fewer than two genres of popular fiction — mystery and modern horror — almost single-handedly. Virtually anyone in the U.S. can recite his poetry (a few lines here and there, at least)…. More…

His stories are brilliant, devastating. But it's more complicated than that.

Because life is so utterly elusive all the way down to the end, you have two basic choices if you want to say anything about it. You can say a lot, too much even, and be satisfied that at least you’ve dumped as much clutter on the matter as you could. Or you can withhold, take little tiny pecks at the thing, and be satisfied that the gaping silences are doing the job.

Raymond Carver came out with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976 and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. The stories are a revelation in pecks and silences. Stripped down, punchy sentences did just that: They punched your guts out. The human landscape of his stories was so rich for being so bare. It seems impossible that literature can be this honest, this true. But there it is. If your hands… More…

The short story is ailing. Maybe we need more stories about cars, dead pets, and cell phones that come to life and kill people.

By now we are all familiar with the litany of reports about the god-awful state of reading in America, the table-talk obituaries about the marketplace for serious literary fiction, and the guttering candles critics keep lighting prematurely around the deathbed of the American short story. The litany goes like this: One of four Americans didn’t read a book last year; major book reviews are shrinking; magazines have dumped or drastically reduced their publication of short stories. If the literary market is lousy in general, short fiction is not even on the agenda. Agents willing to consider short fiction at all now “bundle” collections with novels or even nonfiction books. A sense of crisis is setting in: “What Ails the Short Story?” Stephen King asked after editing The Best American Short Stories 2007.

Contemporary masters still practice the form, including Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia… More…