If I may bend your ear for just a moment

Nothing too unusual about this: high-school student writes to 150 men and women of letters, with four questions about symbolism and their use (or nonuse) thereof.

Except that it happened in 1963, well before email, and the surveys were mimeographed and mailed out. And this is what Bruce McAllister had in 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.

Seventy-five of the authors queried did reply, and 65 of the replies survive:

The answers to the questionnaire were as varied as the writers themselves. Did Isaac Asimov plant symbolism in his work? “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?” Iris Murdoch sagely advises that “there is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.” Ayn Rand wins the prize for concision; addressing McAllister’s example of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, she wrote, “This is not a definition, it is not true — and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” [Jack] Kerouac is a close second; he writes, “Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.” The apologies Bruce received from secretaries — including those of John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and Ian Fleming— explaining that they were traveling and unable to respond were longer than that.

Oh, and McAllister did make a career of it. His 1987 novelette “Dream Baby,” published in Asimov’s and later expanded into a novel, was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards; he’s now a writing coach.

1 comment

  1. McGehee »

    7 December 2011 · 12:58 pm

    If I consciously put symbolism in my fiction, I already know it’s going to be a lousy story.

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