Novelists: ‘Symbol-hunting is absurd’

My daughter didn’t much like Lord of the Flies when she read it for English class, but it had one redeeming feature: It was easy to spot the symbolism.

In 1963, 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class, reports Mental Floss. He mailed a  four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their writing. Half responded. (Copies of the survey responses can be found at the Paris Review.)

He asked: “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated…No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”

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.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation—in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”

“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.?)”

Ray Bradbury:
 Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

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.”

John Updike: “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

McAllister became an English professor and science-fiction writer known for his short stories.

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    I think it was back in eighth grade, as my English teacher was analyzing some piece of writing, that I asked in exasperation, “Do you really think he deliberately put all those things you’ve talked about into what he wrote?” She said, “Great artists often put in things that they don’t consciously realize.”

    At the time I thought it was a ridiculous answer. I don’t think that now. However, I’m not sure it was a good idea to try to get eighth graders to find and appreciate all those things.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “I’m not sure it was a good idea to try to get eighth graders to find and appreciate all those things.”


      It depends on your goal. If you want the kids to *enjoy* the work they are reading, then this is a horrible idea. If you want them to learn to hate literature, then this approach works pretty well.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    exegesis means getting something out of a work, mostly used for the Bible. There is an antonym which escapes me at the moment. But it means putting stuff in that was not there.
    Would it be mean of me to suggest that putting stuff in which wasn’t there is necessary to the professoriate’s trade? Otherwise….

  3. I cannot let this pass without posting this –

  4. SC Math Teacher says:

    What about the pickles and donuts in Ethan Frome? Was that just a byproduct of rich writing, or was it purposely put in there to represent sex?

  5. Someone once said something to the effect that the art of literary criticism consists of noticing what’s there and not imposing something that isn’t. In that spirit, identifying and interpreting symbols is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. It all depends.

    What DOES go sour quickly is a dogmatic approach to literature; this includes the insistence on finding symbols everywhere. One of the big problems with “strategy” instruction is that it encourages the application of generic procedures to singular texts, over and over and over.

  6. How interesting. I wish I would have been armed with this information in my high school and college English classes.

    It wasn’t enough just to find the symbolism, but it had to match the teachers version of what they had found symbolic.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Got a fraternity brother who wrote a dark spy novel. In one part, he had his protagonist sitting in a little glider, thinking about what a lousy fit it was, with his height more in his torso than most guys his size.
    I suppose it could be a symbol for something, but the reality is that the author had slightly too much torso height in his 6’4″ to qualify for flight school, despite having been an AFROTC leader. Went to nav school instead. I guess if you know this, you’re anti-intellectual.