Searching for Symbols: A Young Writer’s Quest

The masterful short story author Flannery O’Connor once gave a lecture at Wesleyan College. Afterwards, during a question and answer session, O’Connor recalls that one of the

young teachers there…an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?”  “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “What is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

While O’Connor may poo-poo the use of symbols, other writers deliberately employ them. It is a delicate thing to do however. It can easily become heavy handed.  “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity,” warns Stephen King in his wonderful guide, On Writing.

In 1963, a young, brash writer named Bruce McAllister had his first story accepted by If, the science fiction magazine. McAllister sided more with the Flannery O’Connor point of view when it came to symbolism in literature. That is, he believed that what many critics, teachers, and students “saw” in a work was completely fabricated. In an attempt prove his point, McAllister created a a mimeographed, survey asking one hundred and fifty writers, everyone from Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand, questions:

  1. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work?
  2. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers?
  3. When this happened, did the authors mind?

Remember, this is 1963 so this project was labor-intensive. Each of the surveys had to be copied, addressed, and mailed individually. McAllister found contact information for the writers in his library’s Twentieth-Century American Literature series which listed the addresses of authors and agents.  Surprisingly, seventy-five authors responded, most of them seriously, and sixty-five of those responses have been preserved.

Norman Mailer, while declining to answer in detail, offers McAllister this bit of advice: “Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish a work.”

Ralph Ellison observes that “symbolism arises out of action and functions best when it does so. 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 has been added.”

To the question, “Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?” Ray Bradbury had this to say:

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. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind…I trust my subconscious implicitly.

You can read many of the responses McAllister received in the Paris Review article on this topic. Several of the letters have been reproduced. Some of the authors answers all of the questions, some pick and chose. Some scrawl their answers by hand, others type. Whatever the method, each one offers a little bit of insight into the writing process.