When students study a novel in a high school English class, some of the discussion revolves around symbolism. What symbols did the author use? What do they mean? Rewind to 1963, when a San Diego high school student, Bruce McAllister (then 16 years old), was tired of symbol hunting and wanted to settle a debate he had with his English teacher: do authors consciously plant symbolism in their work? The intrepid student went straight to the source, mailing a mimeographed questionnaire to 150 novelists (remember this is way before the age of the Internet). He began his letter by defining symbolism: “My definition of symbolism as used in this questionnaire is represented by this example: In The Scarlet Letter there are four major characters. Some say that Hawthorne meant those four to be Nature, Religion, Science or other similar symbols in disguise. They apply the actions of the four in the story to what is presently happening or will happen to Nature, Religion, Science, etc.” He then asked them four questions regarding symbolism. Surprisingly, 75 novelists actually took the time to write him back! Although a few were annoyed by the questions and were dismissive, many were quite gracious to recognize a teaching moment and provide thoughtful answers. A few science fiction writers (Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Biggle Jr., and Judith Merril) wrote answers that were several pages long. Certainly, it invites the question that if this endeavor were be to replicated today, how many authors would actually take the time to answer those four questions?
So what became of McAllister? Sarah Butler, writing for The Paris Review, caught up with McAllister. McAllister teaches literature and writing at the University of Redlands in California. He is a successful published author whose work has been nominated for the prestigious literary prizes. He also founded McAllister Coaching that helps book and screenplay writers refine their manuscripts.
Reflecting on his symbolism survey, McAllister admits that he was full of “the arrogance of high schoolers.” But the biggest mystery to him is why they answered: “It never occurred to me that [the authors] would answer.” In hindsight, McAllister believes his survey was barely literate. Of course, he and his high school teacher were delightfully surprised when the letters started coming in; McAllister adds: [I was] caught between the intimacy of each individual response, and the pattern of the cumulative replies.” McAllister describes his English teacher as “a sweet, teacherly soul,” who was impressed by his daring efforts but was not able to truly absorb its profound significance. Although McAllister never sent the authors a thank you note for their contribution, he remains forever grateful.
Bookshelf presents the four questions McAllister posed followed by selected responses from famous authors. English teachers take note…
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?
Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”
Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”
Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”
Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action… Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”
Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated… No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”
Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation — in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”
Jack Kerouac: “No.”
Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”
John Updike: “Yes — I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”
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.?)
Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”
Ray Bradbury: One critic once thought my vampire family story “Homecoming” was intended as a parable on mankind in the atomic age, under the threat of the Atomic Bomb. I was mostly amused. After all, each story is a Rorschach Test, isn’t it? And if people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I cannot prevent [it] can I? They will insist on seeing them, anyway, and that is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.
Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”
Jack Kerouac: “Both, depending how busy I am.”
Joseph Heller: “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.”
John Updike: “Once in a while — usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”
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?”
Ray Bradbury: “This is a question you must research yourself.”
Ralph Ellison: “Man is a symbol-making and [symbol]–using animal. Language itself is a symbolic form of communication. The great writers all used symbols as a means of controlling the form of their fiction. Some place it there subconsciously, discovered it and then developed it. Others started out consciously aware and in some instances shaped the fiction to the symbols.”
Joseph Heller: “The more sophisticated the writer, I would guess, the smaller the use of symbols in the strictest sense and the greater the attempt to achieve the effects of symbolism in more subtle ways.”
Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”
John Updike: “Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”
4. Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?
Ray Bradbury: “Not much to say except to warn you not to get too serious about all this, if you want to become a writer of fiction in the future. If you intend to become a critic, that is a Whale of another color… Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. 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 unobtrusive.”
Richard Hughes: “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”
Jack Kerouac: “Symbolism is alright in ‘fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.”
Iris Murdoch: “There is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.”
John Updike: “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”
Read related posts: John Fowles on the French Lieutenant’s Woman
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The Best Love Stories
Books that will Change Your Life
Banned Books that Shaped America
Why Study Literature?
Why Read Dickens?
For further reading: www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/12/05/document-the-symbolism-survey/