On symbolism and author intent

The other day a friend asked what I thought of the way English teachers are always going on and on about symbolism. The whale symbolizes this; the letter symbolizes that; the snowman symbolizes this other thing. They’re just reading all sorts of things into it that aren’t really there, right?

“You’re a writer,” she said. “Do you really put symbols into your stories?”

Well, yeah, actually.

I’m not a heavy user of symbols compared to many other authors, and certainly not compared to poets and songwriters, but yes, I am a little bit conscious of the resonance that certain images have, and I do consciously try to make use of this, as a good way to amp up the power in a scene—to make it work on more than one level. Those of you who’ve read (or will someday read, I hope!) Vanishing Act: think it’s coincidence that a kid who feels ignored by his parents and pretty much anyone else develops the ability to disappear? Is it just a coincidence that his ability doesn’t work with Michelle? The disappearing is totally a metaphor. How about that bird Chris sees swooping down into a lake as he’s leaving the park after being dropped off with the Adamses? The bird’s prey is intended to represent Chris, and the way he feels trapped in Danny’s plan. Those of you who’ve read (or will someday read, I hope!) “Cabrón”: think it’s a coincidence that at the end of the story a girl named Cristina offers her blood to a clinical vampire, repeating, word for word, the words of the Catholic Mass (in Spanish)? I definitely intended to make that scene resonate more by employing Christ imagery. And like I said, I’m not a particularly heavy deliberate symbol-user.

But it’s more complicated than that. Symbols can be used inadvertently. Who says that if an author didn’t overtly intend something, it’s not really there? The fact is we trade in meaning and archetype whether we’re conscious of it or not.

And the reader plays a part in the creation of meaning. Art is a transaction between the creator and the consumer—after all, don’t we judge art to be good when it’s particularly effective at creating an effect in us? Well if the testing ground for art is in my head—and in your head—then you and I as art consumers are supplying some of those connections and resonances.

My favorite musicians are the Indigo Girls. (I’ll pause for a moment while you work your head around that one.) A lot of their songs are quite obviously symbolic and sometimes it’s not quite obvious what the real subject is. Whenever I see an interview in which Emily Saliers talks about the meaning behind a song, it’s always pretty much what I thought. But when Amy Ray talks about what one of her songs means to her, it’s often vastly different from the meaning I attached to it. And yet the meaning it holds for me is central to what makes it special to me. So who’s to say that I’m wrong? Maybe the song means what it means to Amy and it means what it means to me, and maybe there’s no contradiction in that.

Bringing this back around to the subject of literature teachers and their quest for symbolism, it’s worth noting that literature teachers who focus heavily on symbolism are naturally going to select books, stories, and poems that reward that kind of examination. So the fact that some writer says “Hell no, nothing I write is symbolic” doesn’t mean all literature teachers are full of hot air.  Naturally they’re going to gravitate to the stories that lend themselves to the sort of literary analysis they like to perform.

Which is where my thoughts on the matter become a bit nuanced. Yes, there is symbolism. Yes, it’s more widespread in art than some outsiders would like to believe. But art consumption and art appreciation is about so much more than the interpreting of symbols. Too many of the literature classes I had—in high school, college, and grad school—focused on symbol deconstruction as though that’s all there is. But literature can be studied for the surface techniques an artist uses to achieve an effect. Figures of speech, diction, assonance and consonance. Imagery. Characterization. The use of tension and conflict. The use of detail to flesh out a world. The moral quandaries the characters face. (And quite frankly, writers are more likely to focus on these things than literature teachers who don’t write, because writers know that enticing someone to continue reading doesn’t just happen by itself.)

If all you focus on is the deciphering of symbols, then you reduce literature to some sort of game, where artists play at encoding secret messages and sneaking them past those readers too concrete-minded to catch on. (And it really is like a game, and it’s a game I was pretty good at, back in my college days.) But symbols, as useful as they can be to give a story added punch, don’t change lives. Symbols don’t make a reader question his or her assumptions, or see life from another person’s perspective. A symbol probably won’t make you laugh out loud, and pretty definitely won’t bring you to tears.

And isn’t all that stuff what art’s about?

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