Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Writing as Melville

So, here’s proof of what we’ve expected all along: Good authors don’t let pesky things like symbolism get in the way of a good story.

As I understand it, then sixteen-year-old Bruce McAllister sent a survey to 150 well-known authors asking if they intentionally placed symbolism in their work. He figured, as Sarah Bunke Butler writes, that by conducting the survey, he 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.” Really. If he could catch authors saying there’s no overt symbolism in their work, he could singlehandedly bring the world of English commentary to its knees.

He got back some pretty interesting responses.

My favorite, from the immortal Ray Bradbury. In response to the question “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe pertinent to such a study?” he wrote:
Not much to say, except to warn you not to get too serious about all this, if you want to become a writer of fiction in the future. If you intend becoming a critic, that is a whale of another color. Still, your own opinion, finally, when you have read and re-read is what you must earch for. When I wrote the screenplay of MOBY DICK for John Huston, I asked him if he wanted me to read all the critical studies of Melville. Huston wisely cried “NO! I want YOUR creative re-creation of the Whale! To hell with the critics!!! Pretend you are Melville and write me the Whale into screenplay form!” . . . which is what I did.

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story. . . humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing. . . and just as unobtrusive.
Also, an interesting tidbit from Ayn Rand, in response to the question “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place aymbolism in your writing? If both yes and no, according to instances, please give an example of each. If yes, please state your method for doing so”:
Yes – I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.
I kinda like that approach.

So here’s another’s interpretation of Moby Dick, via a Tom and Jerry cartoon. No symbolism here. Just a good story told by someone who understands both Bradbury and Rand: Gene Deitch.


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