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Authors Should Tell Us When They're Being Symbolic Up Front

Authors Should Tell Us When They're Being Symbolic Up Front

By Janet Manley

Before SparkNotes were around to pick apart the major motifs in literature, a student, Bruce McAllister, wrote letters to famous writers asking them whether the symbolism in their novels was a deliberate writing device. Their responses ranged from slightly amused (Ray Bradbury: "This is a question you must research yourself") to curt (Jack Kerouac: No") to ornery (MacKinlay Kantor: "Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper"). The general response was: "Of course not, you dimwit. It happens subconsciously." In fact, some of the authors reported readers inventing symbolism where there wasn't any (John Updike: "Usually they do not see the symbols that are there.").

How confusing! We think authors need to start flagging unintended symbolism with brief disclaimers before they accept any Pulitzer, Nobel or Booker prizes, so as not to mislead the reading public. Here's how that could go...

Ernest Hemingway

Dear monogamists,

In order to pre-empt critical reads of my latest novella, "The Ornamental Fireplace," I wish to diffuse any notions that the fireplace is a symbolic stand-in for the human spirit, man, love, the life-long quest, the Renaissance, or whiskey. The fireplace simply serves to give my characters somewhere to sit while they talk guardedly in brief sentences, without having to ever chop wood.

Yours,

Ernest

Ayn Rand

Public;

I should have expected that the ordinariness of this populace should read more into the giant blowup teddybear in my latest novel than was placed on the page by its architect, me. The teddybear is not a token of the nannystate; it is simply a symptom of an ill-thought-out shopping expedition by one of my characters—something capitalism will take care of in time. Such an undiscerning public hardly deserves this art if it cannot interpret it sensibly. Hereby, I am blowing up all my fiction.

Ayn

Jack Kerouac

My dear friend,

You are with me always, even though I don't agree with your takes on my writing much of the time—such is the writerly paradox that keeps a beaten tennis racket like myself on this never-ending highway that we call I-80. And I don't mean that like a metaphor; I am literally on I-80 forever, because how else do you efficiently cross this yawning expanse of longing that we call America without losing half your life/novel to Nebraska? I want to clarify that when I went cotton picking, I was talking purely about the visceral experience of picking cotton, and not about finding an identity as a white male in this strangely puritanical society. Also, when I talked about being blown off a mountain, I was again talking very literally about the risks of high-altitude alpine-style mountaineering without sufficient gear. You should always carry ropes. Anyway, as the wind blows harder, I burn for you. Literally, I ate too much onion today, friend.

Burn burn burn,

Sal

Ray Bradbury

Dear critic,

Let me ask you this: Why would I have any utility for symbols in my writing when the entire world is a shambles of government-constructed facades? In my writing, I do not try to erect analogous layers, I aim to take them down. Also, the elephant in my new short story, "Womp," does not function as a symbol; merely a customer disgruntled by the inadequate service at Manhattan restaurants.

Ray

[via Mental Floss]

Topics: Life
Tags: writing, famous writers, advice, ayn rand, ray bradbury, symbolism, jack kerouac, ernest hemingway, english lit

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About the Author
Janet Manley

Janet's desk was moved into the hall for the duration of coursework on Roman numerals in grade four, and she cannot tell one Rocky from another to this day. Her spirit animal is a wombat, and she has not written a novel. Dauntless, Gryffindor, Mockingjay. She tweets @janetmanley

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.