Archive for December, 2011

The Symbolism Survey

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Whether it’s 2011 in a class I’m teaching, 2000 in a class I’m attending, or 1963 in a class Bruce McAllister was attending, the question surfaces.

“Are we supposed to be looking for deeper meaning in the book? How do you know the author meant this to be a symbol for something else?”

The Paris Review blogged about the survey young McAllister, determined to prove his English teacher wrong, sent to 150 famous authors. The survey centered around the question: “Do you consciously place symbols in your work to be discovered?”

McAllister got many replies from writers like Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, and Ray Bradbury. Some responses he received:

Norman Mailer: “The best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

John Updike: Do you consciously place symbols in your work? “Yes.” Do you subconsciously place symbols in your work? “Yes. I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction–you don’t seem to understand.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action and functions best in fiction when it does so. Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arise in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and consciously manipulate them 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 of that something extraneous has been added.”

I see three lessons in this addition to literary history. First, the world of writing is rarely cut-and-dried; as The Paris Review puts it, “[t]he answers to the questionnaires were as varied as the writers themselves.” Second, authors often care about paying it forward. Many of the writers’ responses come from a position of mentorship, the desire to share knowledge with a fledgling of their field and to help him grow. I can recall times when I’ve reached out to authors for advice and been pleasantly surprised by the results: Andrea Seigel and Caryl Phillips come to mind. Acknowledgement from literary superstars is hugely encouraging for writers just starting out. Third, it never hurts to question. McAllister probably had to write his paper on symbolism in The Scarlet Letter regardless of what Ayn Rand thought, but he was all the more educated for reflecting on the purpose of the exercise.

Almost There!


Thanks to the bountiful generosity of friends, family, and even a few strangers, we are now almost SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT of the way to funding my Killing the Angel Kickstarter goal!  Seventy-five percent.  Knowing that so many people believe in this project that they are willing to contribute makes me incredibly happy.  Thank you so much for giving to help make my vision a reality… and if you haven’t donated, here are some reasons why you should go to my Killing the Angel pledge page and pledge today!

1. Everyone who contributes gets a free contributor copy of our first issue.  That’s right, whether you donate $1 or $100, you’ll get a free copy of the mag!  Of course, there are also lots of other incentives for each donation level.

2. All the cool kids are already doing it.

3. Kickstarter makes donating fast and easy.  Do your good deed in less than five minutes.

4. As a chef said recently on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives:  ”It’s a fine line between success and disaster.”  My seventy-five percent will become zero percent if I don’t meet my $2,000 goal by midnight on December 24.

5. Karma!

I can’t think of a better Christmas present than waking up on December 25 knowing that I have the resources to spend 2012 creating this literary magazine.  Thank you so much to those of you that believe in my vision, and thank you to those that will donate before the 24th to help push me toward the finish line.