The fine folks over at Mental Floss have an article you should read, if you’re into that sort of thing, and why are you here if you’re not?
As it turns out, way back in the Before Time (aka 1963), there was a young man named Bruce McAllister who was tired of arguing with his English teacher (so say we all). I sent my high school Composition teacher a copy of my first book, since her class is the only one I ever got an F in. I’m not expecting to hear back.
Bruce was a little more motivated, so he sent out letters to 150 novelists, and got back 75 answers, which is pretty astounding, considering how things work today. You can find all the responses at the Paris Review, and 12 answers in the original post linked above. Responding authors included Jack Kerouac, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand, Norman Mailer, and Ralph Ellison, among others.
What interested me most, aside from the responses — which were exactly as I’d have predicted — are the questions young McAllister asked. Here they are, each followed by my own response to said question.
1. “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”
Not intentionally, no. Sub-consciously… well, if it’s sub-conscious, how would I know, except in retrospect? I’m sure if you dug deep enough, you could find symbolism for pretty much anything in my stories. I don’t think about that kind of stuff when I’m writing, I just tell the story. If there’s some symbolism in there, or if someone gets some value out of it that I haven’t intended, then great… but it’s not intentional.
2. “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”
I haven’t yet had anyone tell me they found some symbolism where I didn’t intend it, but I’m sure it’s happened. Were someone to come up to me and say, “Hey, I thought X about your book was great symbolism for Y,” then I would be interested to see how they got that out of my work. If it’s completely out of the realm of the sane, then I would likely find it humorous.
3. “Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? … Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”
I suppose some of them must have. Homer barely used it, and Joyce used enough to trip over, so the answer has to be yes and no. I would say whether or not it was done consciously can be pretty easily determined by how obvious it is: Joyce practically hit you over the head with it, as did Fitzgerald. Others, not so much.
4. “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”
Searching for symbolism is pointless, because you’ll always find what you’re looking for, eventually. But if you stumble across symbolism, then that’s the best kind – because it’s your own mind making that connection, with the help of the author, serendipitously, rather than forcing it.
- Novelists on Symbolism (teachingcollegeenglish.com)
- Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional (wilwheaton.typepad.com)