Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Symbolism versus resonance

How do you feel about the use of symbolism in what you read? What you write? I confess that I’m not a big fan of deliberate and conscious symbolism as it is often used by writers. I’ve read books (Steinbeck anyone?) where the Christian imagery is rather overwhelming, and obvious. I don’t like being hit over the head with a writer’s point. I don’t like having them force my recognition of their philosophy or anti-philosophy. I did not, for example, find Pilgrim’s Progress a compelling read. This is one thing I didn’t care for in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I believe that George Lucas made better movies before he became so conscious of the fact that he was writing out Joseph Cambell’s concept of myth. On a lesser note, I tried to watch the new sitcom Cavemen last night but not only was it not funny, but it tried to symbolically connect the modern “caveman” experience to that of African Americans and those of Jewish decent in a way that I found incredibly trivial.

On the other hand, I enjoy discovering symbols and meaning when it is subtle and serves completely the needs of the story. I love how Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters can be read as indictments of Cold War paranoia. But, first and foremost, these stories stand on their own as stories. The symbolism, the relevance, is gravy.

What Finney did was create a sense of “resonance” in his story rather than using overt symbolism. The power of this approach is that it is all about the “reader” and not the writer. The reader feels the currents passing underneath them. They know something is stirring in the depths, that it’s rising toward them, but it takes a while to figure out what. By the time they figure it out they are already engulfed with the awareness. And seldom will two different readers figure out the same thing. Such stories are very much a “build your own adventure” or at least “build your own meaning” experience.

I may post some more on this topic because it fascinates me. I know I run the risk of insulting folks who like overt symbolism, but such is not my intent. Some excellent works exist where the symbolism is clear. But there are plenty of works that lack overt symbolism but still create a sense of resonance in the reader. I personally prefer the latter. How about you?


Stewart Sternberg said...

You may have read me comment on this before, but I believe, like Graham Greene that there are two sides to my own writing, one is the literary and the other is the entertainment.

I find that the literary takes longer to write, I have to delve deeper into the subtlety of character and always keep in mind the main theme, hoping that the subthemes form interesting tributaries without spreading out too far.

Symbolism...I use it often. Sometimes it's a signpost that directs or redircts the reader's attention, while other times it's a subtle whisper coarsing through the narrative.

I think a lot of writers use symbolism subconsciously as they write. They draw a character or put them in situations because it "feels right". Maybe it's just part of the narrative flow, or perhaps there is something Jungian at work.

Steve Malley said...

If you will, consider the telling of a tale as a long swim in black water. Pale shapes, barely glimpsed, slide past beneath the surface.

From time to time, cold scales my brush our leg. Or prickly spines. Or worse, something disconcertingly warm, and razor sharp....

The proper symbols find our way to the surface without effort. In fact, even if we *try* to keep them out, they find their way in.

Forcing symbolism into our work robs it of its power. Much like a crayon drawing of those same night fish...

Charles Gramlich said...

Stewart, I don't think I make such a distinction in my own work. Some stories come pretty easily, others require struggle. But I haven't noticed a distinction between literary and genre fiction. I do find hard SF difficult to write, but it's because I spend more time researching the science aspects of it than anything else.

Steve, I think that's it exactly for me. I find Catholic symbolism in my own fiction, for example, but it comes from being raised and educated for many years in that tradition. I've tried a few times to deliberately insert symbolism but it always seems to me that I can see the weld mark that holds it to the rest of the frame.

Ello said...

Yes I totally agree with you. I hate being preached at. The best stories are those where the interpretation of the symbols are left to the reader.

the walking man said...

out of the hundreds of thousands of words I have written I can honestly say I never once tried to insert any symbolism. If someone sees it in there then they see it; because to me I just write whatever word comes after the one I just finished.



Shauna Roberts said...

If, when I finish a piece, I discover some themes or symbols have developed, I do go back and strengthen them. But I don't consciously add symbolism in a first draft.

One thing I discovered being in a book discussion group is that the meaning a person takes away from a book is unique to them and rooted in their upbringing, job, and experiences. For example, for a long time after my mother died, every book I read seemed to be about loss. None of the other members of my book group saw loss as the main theme.

Angie said...

I think the bottom line is that if the duct tape shows, it's not a good fit.

I don't mind overt symbolism so long as the basic story is good and the symbols fit smoothly into the story without anything being obviously bent or strained. If anything about the story has to be forced to make the symbolism work then that's a failure in my book.

Assuming it works well, it's hard to say sometimes what's overt and what's less so. It often depends on the background the reader brings to the story, as you said. When I first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when I was eleven, for example, I didn't notice the Christian imagery until a teacher pointed it out. An adult from a non-Christian society probably wouldn't notice either, although most adult Christians find it pretty blatant. It depends who's reading.

Subtler effects which qualify as "resonance" are cool too, and can prompt some interesting discussions. The fact that each reader brings their own ingredients to the mix is part of what makes it interesting, and a story which can be interpreted, or has aspects which can be interpreted a number of different ways depending on one's assumptions or world view is pretty cool in my book.

I used to enjoy writing English essays in college about this or that story and making some weird point of interpretation completely different from the teacher's, with rock-solid support from the story itself. The good teachers appreciated that. :D But the fact that you can do that with a story says something about its craftsmanship, I think. Being coherently chameleonic is more difficult than making a single clear point.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I enjoy reading all different levels of symbolism and subtler communication, so long as it's well written and the story it's embedded in is worth reading in the first place.


Sidney said...

I think symbolism is best if it emerges from the writer. "The Red Badge of Courage" comes to mind. Crane was a minister and you get references to the sun as a "wafer" and there's much more.

It certainly enriches the novel, but I don't know that it was a technical calculation.

If it had been, don't know that it would have been as soulful.

Lisa said...

I think story absolutely has to come first and symbolism that the author has intentionally inserted comes across as awkward and heavy handed. I am becoming a huge believer in the power of the subconscious to guide story and what Shauna said really hits home with me. I've found that sometimes when I'm on a roll writing or I'm editing a draft something will come to me and I'll get excited about adding it. The best times are when I realize after the idea has come to me that it serves a greater purpose in the story by reinforcing a theme. When this has happened, it's often tied to setting or an object in scene and I'll realize after I've written it or thought of it that it has an additional meaning that may or man not ever be apparent to the reader. I suspect I miss many of these when I read, but I'm always delighted when I catch them too. I think the bottom line is that if a writer tries to conjure them up consciously, they're obvious and annoying.

steve said...

I hated symbolism back in high school--especially the pop-Freudian ones. I agree that the story comes first. While I haven't read Body Snatchers, I've read enough Finney to understand what you're saying.

Another trouble with overt symbolism is that it can simply destroy the reading experience, especially when it's taught in a required class. Resonance is much harder to teach than symbolism, which is probably why most high school English teachers dwell on symbolism.

Brandon said...

I love the post. When I wrote my first novel, I was surprised by how much symbolism was added without even realizing I's done it. So, yes, I agree on the subconscious aspect of symbolism. Nice t see you mention Graham Greene. Big fan.

Michelle's Spell said...

I think this is a great topic. I try not to think about any potential symbolism -- it's all there, but if you become too aware of it as you're writing, I think that you risk killing the work. I keep seeing the same things coming up in my work, but not because I put them there. You don't, as Raymond Carver once noted, get to pick your obsessions! I would like to write a story someday without a snake, though. That and Tex-Mex restaurants -- they seem to be a primary setting for me. Must be the margaritas!

Bernita said...

While I will cheerfully not only beat a metaphor to death but also dismember it in non-fiction, I really prefer ( and hope I write) to read fiction in which the associations frisson in the reader's mind much as Steve suggests.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, I think letting the reader make the interpretations gives much more depth to the story. The writer can't specify everything.

Mark, I have tried inserting symbolism; I just never thought it worked well.

Shauna, exactly on the meaning being what an individual reader takes away. I also do things to emphasize themes in further drafts.

Angie, good point. It could be sometimes that symbolism has been overtly inserted into a book by the author but it is so skillfully done that it seems very natural. I think some really good writers can achieve that.

Sidney, I agree, like the imagery of Catholocism that slips into my own work.

Lisa, yes, the key is letting the subconscious make the links and associations in your work that then can become symbolism.

Michelle, that's what has happened to me when I've consciously tried to use symbolism. It's like an actor trying to remember they are supposed to have a limp and can't quite walk naturally.

Bernita, more and more I think I am coming to see writing from the reader's perspective.

Steve, I'm a psychologist and I "really, really" hate the pop-Freudian ones. They are so heavy handed and obvious most of the time.

Brandon, the mind generates fascinating things when it's not ordered to. I think horror in particular benefits from this kind of thing.

Erik Donald France said...

"On the other hand, I enjoy discovering symbols and meaning when it is subtle and serves completely the needs of the story."

Amen. It's also cool when the writer does this subliminally, and only later realizes it.

Overt symbolism is as bad as the "cute names" to me -- puts me off. Unless it's Flannery O'Connor.

Avery DeBow said...

I don't like being hit over the head. And, as I want done unto me, I won't be doing to others.

During a brief stint in one of my many attempts at college life, I took a creative writing class. Our stories were read aloud by the instructor and then everyone gave verbal feedback. I was highly amused at how deep these people thought I was. They made me into a literary and sociological genius, seeing symbolism and social commentary where none existed. It was a farce.

I write to amuse, to entertain. If someone wants to find higher meaning in it, they're very welcome. But, I can assure you, none is ever intended.

Brandon said...

"the mind generates fascinating things when it's not ordered to. I think horror in particular benefits from this kind of thing."

I completely agree. I think there could be a story idea there as well. I wrote a story about depair and hopeless and loss, and it was always cloudy, rainy, and bleak through the whole story, just depressing. Inever deliberately intended this. It was just how I saw the story. I think weather can be a good symbolic example, among, of course, thousands of other things. But I wonder...I agree the subconscious can be a powerful tool, operating on its own without you, or holding your hand, so to speak, pulling you along. It's really quite a beautiful thing in creativity, especially as a writer.

December/Stacia said...

I agree. If the symbolism was subtle, so you feel like you get to discover it, it's fun. If it's makes me mad.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, I agree. The overt is trying to hard.

Avery, the only higher meaning in my work is probably just the fact that one human is writing it and another reading it. And since we all deal with life and death the meaning is found merely in our telling of stories.

Brandon, I should post sometime just on symbolism in horror. Ripe field to investigate.

December/Stacia, I'm still reeling from 85,000 K in ten weeks.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very thoughtful, Charles! I'll link to this one.

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