A while ago, I came across across an article on Mental Floss (fairly old news now) about how a teenage Bruce McAllister sent letters to famous authors in 1963 to ask whether they consciously (or subconsciously) placed symbolism into their writing and other related questions. The answers varied a bit, some are pretty funny on their own and others are hilarious given the contrast between the authors’ responses. Then, there’s also some useful information.
Back in my K–12 years, I had thoughts similar to McAllister’s about symbolism in my reading assignments at school. One recurring thought I had was, “This is horse crap” (well, not those exact words). It wasn’t that I thought authors never intended certain symbols, or that they never created symbols by accident. I assumed that happened quite often. However, I remember my teacher(s) trying to sell me very vague and unlikely symbols (I also recall pulling symbols out of my ass and my teacher(s) agreeing with me about it). So, like McAllister, I wondered about whether these authors intended all the symbols that academics draw from their work.
Setting poetry aside.
It’s my assumption that poetry will tend to have a higher amount of intentional symbolism packed into very few lines. If not, it’s probably a crappy poem. Of course, I don’t consider myself much of a poet (got very mediocre grades in my poetry class back at UCLA), so take this opinion with a grain of salt (two grains if you’re having dehydration issues). So, let’s set poetry aside for now and focus on novels.
McAllister’s questions get some pretty good responses.
McAllister pretty much asked these four questions of the authors he polled: (1) whether the author intentionally or subconsciously placed symbolism in their writing; (2) whether readers read symbols where none was intended, and the author’s feelings on the matter; (3) if they believed authors of “classics” intentionally placed symbolism in their writing; and (4) whether they had any other remarks concerning “the subject under study” (aka symbolism in writing and the author’s intent).
Highlights of the authors’ responses:
- When asked whether he intentionally or subconsciously placed symbolism in his writing, Jack Kerouac simply responded, “No.” To clarify, it’s because Kerouac’s novels are supposedly true and accurate stories about the lives of people he knew personally. Any symbolism, therefore, would have been placed there by some divine storyteller. The “No” is still kind of funny, though.
- These famous authors generally did not intentionally place symbolism in their writing. Most of the symbolism appears as an organic part of their writing. They discover it only after it’s there and, according to Ralph Ellison, they then “may take advantage of [the symbols] and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of [their] art.”
- All the authors have had readers pull symbolism out of the work where none was intended, finding these instances ranging from annoying to pleasant. Saul Bellow said, “Symbol-hunting is absurd.” Again, however, Kerouac’s response is my favorite: “Both [humorous and annoying], depending how busy I am.” That guy.
- In the words of Ray Bradbury, “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story… humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels… Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing… and as unobstrusive.”
My experience with unintentional symbolism.
Like Mcallister’s polled authors (and, likely the majority of all writers out there), virtually all of the symbols in my one-and-only finished manuscript were noticed only after the text was written. There are plenty of things with dual and multiple meanings which I noticed only in the umpteenth revision (as I was an English major and am currently a lawyer, it’d be pretty embarrassing if I couldn’t draw analogies from my own writing).
Ray Bradbury’s “things of greater value.”
I agree with Bradbury that humanity, characters, and certain other aspects in a novel are more important than symbolism. I’ll add that humanity and character may be more important than even premise and setting.
On one hand, I probably wouldn’t give the light of day to something with a premise that wasn’t initially appealing (absent some sort of critical or popular acclaim). On the other hand, I sometimes get annoyed when I’m enticed into reading/watching something based on it’s premise only to find its essence (i.e., comments on humanity and well-developed characters) to be lacking.
Lesson: Don’t worry too much about symbols.
Just write what you write (oh, but if you want to be able to easily sell your book, make sure the premise and setting is highly marketable—maybe see my bit about high-concept fiction).