Challenging symbol-hunting in English class

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

In 1963 a 16-year-old named Bruce McAllister wrote to 150 famous authors to ask if symbolism — or apparent symbolism — in their work was intentional. He was apparently frustrated with the way his English teacher analyzed each novel they read for symbolism McAllister felt wasn’t there, or at least wasn’t a conscious choice on the part of the author.

First of all, what a brilliant reaction to an experience most of us probably had as high school English students. I certainly did, only I went home and complained about it and used it as a reason to procrastinate on my English homework. The over-analyzing of novels even made me sidestep English as a major in college. Going right to the source to challenge one’s English teacher! Bravo, Bruce McAllister, bravo. What’s even more lovely about this story is that McAllister went on to become an English professor and writer.

The survey responses revealed (surprise, surprise!) that most authors did not feel they consciously made use of symbolism in their novels. But the answers young McAllister received were also full of wisdom (Ray Bradbury: “self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act”) and watch-out-young-whippersnapper advice (MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”).

After reading McAllister’s questions and the authors’ responses, I felt strangely relieved —vindicated even, after all these years, that high school English class did contain some level of absurdity. Saul Bellow himself says in his response, “Symbol-hunting is absurd.” But aside from a weird feeling of personal satisfaction that my teenage cynicism had merit — these responses are wonderful and instructive. For example:

McAllister: “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.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

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.”

McAllister: “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.?)”

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.”

Ray Bradbury: “If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches I cannot prevent it can I? … Still, I wish people … did not try so hard to find the man under the old-maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.”

McAllister: “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes: “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”

Ray Bradbury: “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Copies of many of the original surveys and responses are in the Paris Review, here. A summarized version of the responses appears here.


Great novels about work

This week I returned to the business newspaper where I’ve worked on and off for the past ten years. For the next six months I’ll be filling in there a couple of days a week for an editor who is on maternity leave. Aside from the fact that I’ve now thrown myself another ball into the air to juggle, this change, along with a lot of pondering of my novel-in-progress, got me thinking about novels about — you guessed it — work. (The novel-in-progress contains quite a bit of its characters’ working lives. Work is itself a character.)

And so I thought I’d put together a listing of novels about work. I tend to look for “model books” when I’m writing, to see how other authors have tackled certain topics/themes, and thus I love to see and collect lists of books that have themes in common. There’s more fiction about the workplace than you might think. After all, everyone who’s had to make it through a slow Friday afternoon on the job knows that work can be tedious, and how does one go about making a novel out of that?

-It happens that a couple of books have been released recently that focus on the workplace: David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (arguably also about tedium) and an anthology edited by author Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work.

-Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End is perhaps my favorite novel centered on work, and especially on office life. He captured the strange time of the dot-com boom and bust of the early 2000s in writing about employees of an ad agency.

-Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. What a fabulous example of the great American novel! It’s Mad Men, before there was “Mad Men.” And it’s all here: the house in the suburbs, the commute to the city, the disconnect between working life and home life. Working life in the ’50s.

-You might not think of it this way, but The Great Gatsby has a work theme. (Plus I just love the novel, and will bring it up whenever possible.) TGG takes place at a particular time in economic history, much in the way Ferris’ novel does, in which young people are arriving to New York in droves to work for banks. I can’t help but include this lovely graph, in which Nick is working late in his office in Manhattan:

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other places to find work in fiction: Richard Ford’s Sportswriter trilogy; John Cheever’s stories (at the very least, the commute is prominent, as is the disconnect between work and home life, much as in Yates’ novel. Cutting for Stone is one of the finer novels I’ve read involving the medical profession; Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists examines the life of expat journalists; Allegra Goodman’s Cookbook Collector tackles both life at a pre-9/11 dot-com and work at a Berkeley antiquarian bookstore. Melissa Bank’s Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing includes quite a bit on starting out in publishing. Of course there are the more popular novels: The Devil Wears Prada, The Firm, Vertical Run, etc., etc.

And so, back to the grind. Happy reading!


The Independent’s “In search of novels about the working life” takes a look at why there aren’t more novels about work (“Work’s relative absence from the novel is all the odder when you consider its absolute ubiquity. Not only is it a universal leveller, it is also one of the great venues for social interaction.”) and considers some of the great books involving the workplace, including Ferris’ book, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and other classics, like The Jungle.

Six great work/business novels (The Daily Beast) Includes Yates’ novel and Joseph Heller’s follow-up to Catch-22.

Ian McEwan’s Five Favorite Novels About Work (Salon) Obviously, we can’t leave out Updike.

An impressive compendium from Library Booklists (a great resource, BTW) Financial, Work, Business, and Math Fiction

Richard Ford on his new anthology, on public radio’s Marketplace

NY Times’ review of DFW’s The Pale King