Was Your English Lit Teacher Wrong About Symbolism?
You always wondered if your college lit professor was just making crap up.
Turns out, maybe they were.
This article from The Paris Review offers a revealing take by many famous authors on how much symbolism played a part in their work.
Their comments were prompted by a letter from a 16-year-old Bruce McCallister in 1963. He was tired of the constant find-the-symbolism game in English class, so he took it upon himself to ask them what the big deal was with symbolism.
He mailed a simple four-question survey to more than 150 novelists. About half of them responded. The responses were varied, but most of the authors seemed to think symbolism is overanalyzed. Their comments were awesome:
The survey included the following questions:
“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?”
Jack Kerouac: “No.”
Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”
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.”
John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”
“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.?)”
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.”
Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”
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.”
“Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”
Richard Hughes: “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.”
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. “
Ralph Ellison: “Man is a symbol-making and –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.”
Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”
In sum, it sounds like many of the authors dismissed the obsessive search for symbolism in their work. Is it in there? Yes. But it’s in there more subconciously than anything else. And it’s not in every sentence like your high school English teacher might have led you to believe.
I love Jack Kerouac’s answer to the first question. A simple “no.”
You might notice that I don’t talk a lot about symbolism and the like when I “review” the 101 Books and write about them. That’s purposeful.
Doing so would take me back to English class and thereby take all the fun out of writing (and consequently reading) this blog. I try to keep it light and, mostly, on the surface, maybe even more often than I should.
But this brief little survey from a high school kid in 1963 makes me feel like I might be reading these novels more in line with the way their authors intended.
If you’re a symbolism hunter, more power to you. Go for it. But it’s just not something I enjoy all that much.