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.

Young-adult books? Or kids’ books?

What Are Your Favorite Young Adult Novels? asks NPR in its summer books poll. Votes are coming in from adults as well as teens, reports Atlantic Wire.

Readers can choose 10 books from a list that includes “Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat series; Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making; Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver trilogy, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie; the Betsy-Tacy books; the Anne of Green Gables series, Hold Still by Nina LaCour, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese, Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy; and Judy Blume’s Forever.”

In a post, NPR’s Petra Mayer explains she cut A Wrinkle in Time, Little House on the Prairie, many Judy Blume books and Where the Red Fern Grows, as  “too young” for the category, which includes readers 12 through 18 years old. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read in sixth grade, was excluded for being too mature.

The panelists aimed to include books like Catcher in the Rye, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which have been essentially “claimed by teens” but weren’t initially intended for them.

I‘m not sure Catcher and Lord of the Flies have been claimed by teens. They’ve been assigned to teens. (Count me among those who thought Holden Caulfield was a whiny brat, even when I was 16.)

The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (teens with terminal cancer fall in love) are front-runners in the poll, so far. The top 100 teen books as selected by readers will be posted on Aug. 8.

Is Encyclopedia Brown Young-Adult Literature? asks Ed Week Teacher, responding to a Flavorwire list of the 10 greatest young-adult series of all time.

The cultural news site included The Time Quintet, the Redwall SeriesThe Earthsea Cycle, and the Artemis Fowl books among their top picks, but excluded The Chronicles of NarniaThe Lord of the RingsHarry Potter and The Hunger Games because, according to the editors, they’re already “so well established” and don’t need to be on a “list like this…”

Commenters are debating the line between children’s books and young-adult books.