Style: The Symbolism Survey

Norman Mailer’s response to the survey

Once a book is published, readers and critics–especially critics–impose their worldview on the work. Sometimes they see what the writer saw when they wrote it. Sometimes they don’t (see this list from Cracked.com for some pretty interesting examples). Either way, it’s rare that anyone asks the writer what they intended. Symbolism is symbolism because of what it pulls out of people, but one enterprising young man in 1964 wasn’t satisfied with that. He sent out a questionnaire to 150 well-known writers and now, almost fifty years later, his survey is still as fascinating as when the responses came pouring in:

In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?

McAllister had just published his first story, “The Faces Outside,” in both IF magazine and Simon and Schuster’s 1964 roundup of the best science fiction of the year. Confident, if not downright cocky, he thought the surveys could settle a conflict with his English teacher by proving that symbols weren’t lying beneath the texts they read like buried treasure awaiting discovery.

His project involved substantial labor—this before the Internet, before e-mail—but was not impossible: many authors and their representatives were listed in the Twentieth-Century American Literature series found in the local library. More impressive is that seventy-five writers replied—most of them, in earnest. Sixty-five of those responses survive (McAllister lost ten to “a kleptomaniacal friend”). Answers ranged from the secretarial blow off to a thick packet of single-spaced typescript in reply.

The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.

Even if he approached them en masse, with a form letter.

And failed to follow up with a thank-you note.

 To read the rest of the article and see more responses, click here.

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