Author’s Authority

Posted by – November 26, 2013

In 1963, Bruce McAllister, a 16 year old high school student, decided his teachers were full of it when it came to symbolism in novels. So he wrote a bunch of authors and asked if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work.

Here’s what they said:

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.”

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.”

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.”

He also asked

“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.”

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.”

and

“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?”

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.”

I love this so, so much – not just the answers, but even that they bothered to answer.  I very, very rarely read other writers when they write about writing; most “advice” about writing is a huge waste of time, in my opinion. BUT hearing writers talk about their own work, and about other writing they admire – that’s pretty cool.

There are more authors’ answers in the original article over at Mental Floss. (& Find out what happened to Bruce McAllister, too.)

 

2 Comments on Author’s Authority

  1. divadarya says:

    Wow, so very cool. A great group of authors, too.

  2. TrishMifflin says:

    And true to form, Ayn Rand was kind of a jerk to a 16-year-old kid. ;)

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