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.