Sounding Brass and Clanking Symbols

To a lot of readers, literary symbolism is that thing in high school English class that the teacher went on and on about instead of talking about the story.  Then some of them turn into writers, and come to the understanding that literary symbolism isn’t some sort of academic game of  “Gotcha!” – it’s just another tool in the toolbox, a way of deepening and enriching the theme of the story without having to take the reader’s attention away from the plot and the setting and the characters.

Sometimes the gun over the mantelpiece literally goes off in the third act.  And sometimes the gun over the mantelpiece is there to keep the reader aware of something else in the story that goes off in the third act instead.  That second gun is a symbol.

There are two sorts of symbols.  One sort consists of symbols drawn from several thousand years of human culture – mostly Western culture, for reasons having to do with imperialism, colonialism, the established literary and artistic canon as set forth in freshman-year survey classes, and the fact that if you’re reading this blog, then English is at least one of your secondary languages.  The other sort are drawn from the writer’s own mind and are hand-made on purpose for a particular project:  the billboard with the picture of the eyeglasses in The Great Gatsby, the scent of honeysuckle in The Sound and the Fury.

The primary risk involved in deploying the first sort of symbol is that of misunderstanding.  The audience for our work grows more global every day, and there is no guarantee that the reader’s load of cultural baggage is the same as the one the writer brought to the story.  There’s no telling what references are going to leave a non-native-English-speaker in a position similar to that of a college freshman somewhere in Iowa struggling with Crime and Punishment in translation, and having to rely on the introduction and the footnotes to make sense of the social implications of all those first names, last names, patronymics, and multiple layers of nicknames, and who calls who what when.

A secondary risk associated with the use of established cultural symbols is that they can change meaning over time, or across distance, and the world is not always kind enough to post warnings when you’re going over one of those borders.  A fairly dramatic case in point, of course, is the swastika, which prior to the 1930s was known in a number of world traditions as a good-luck symbol – Kipling employed it in his bookplates and on the bindings of his books until 1935, as an homage to his roots in British India, for example; it also appears in prehistoric petroglyphs (drawings and symbols on rock) in the North American Southwest.  By the end of the second World War, however, the former good-luck symbol had acquired such a burden of negative association that it has been effectively desecrated for good in the minds of Western audiences.  A writer coming from one of the world traditions where the swastika has retained a good portion of its former meaning is going to have a hard time making a case for its use, no matter how benign their intent may be.

For the second sort of symbol – the handmade-for-the-occasion kind – the primary risk is that of obscurity.  Even a reader from the same time and place as the writer is not going to have access to the inside of the writer’s head, or to the writer’s private stock of significant images.  The writer has to work the meaning of the symbol into the very story whose meaning the symbol is intended to explicate or reinforce, which is a task not much different from crossing a deep ravine by means of a bridge which you’re building beneath you as you go across.  The fact that writers do it all the time, and that readers get the intended meaning more often than not (even if they don’t have the critical vocabulary to explicate it later), is in fact a tribute to the collective intelligence of all of us, writers and readers alike.

I don’t have any words of wisdom about secret techniques for making this part of the writing job any easier . . . just an acknowledgement that it really is hard work, and full of pitfalls and unexploded land mines, but that it’s one of the things that, if you carry it off, will give your story that sense of extra layers beneath the surface which can lift it above the other submissions in an editor’s stack.

Where I’m Going to be This Weekend

I’m going to be at the La Belle Winery in Amherst, New Hampshire, participating in a short fiction slam with other former students and instructors of the Odyssey Writer’s Workshop. (Jim Macdonald and I were guest instructors there, once upon a time.)

I’ve never participated in a slam before (group readings at conventions and the like, yes, but that was within the tribe, as it were) and certainly never one at a winery.

This should be fun.  If you’re in or around Amherst NH this weekend with $25 burning a hole in your pocket ($15 if you’re a student; $10 if you’re a teenager), you might think of stopping by.

Today’s Cranky Observation

If ever I needed to present any evidence that this blog post by Matthew Yglesias was mindboggling in its sheer wrong-headedness, this quote alone would do the trick:

Transforming a writer’s words into a readable e-book product can be done with a combination of software and a minimal amount of training.

It appears that even noted bloggers on politics and economics aren’t exceptions to the widespread belief that novels aren’t so much made objects as they are the naturally-occurring fruit of the fiction tree.

There are a whole lot of things that have to happen to an author’s manuscript before the printer, or the e-book producer, ever gets hold of it, and surprise, all of these things involve the services of people who expect to get paid for their labor.  Yes, the author could do these things him-or-herself,  or could hire other people to do them for him/her – but authors generally have other things to do with their money (such as eating, or paying the internet bill), and other things to do with their time (such as writing more books.)

Maybe some things could be better for authors than, in the current scheme of things, they are . . . but improving the lot of authors by bringing down traditional publishing is a bit like improving the lot of coal miners by closing down all the mines.

Farewell to the Island

vpxiGayHead Light




The Viable Paradise workshop is over for another year.  We had writing and music and pancakes and jellyfish and a sky full of stars.  (Also, if you were me, lobster tacos at the Lookout restaurant, and I just have to say, that was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted done to a lobster.)

The photo, by the way, is of the Gay Head Lighthouse on the Cliffs of Aquinnah — one of the five lighthouses on the island.  (The others are East Chop, West Chop, Edgartown, and Cape Pogue.) It’s called “Gay Head” because the headland there is a multi-hued clay cliff.  Obligatory literature reference:  The harpooneer Tashtego, in Moby-Dick, was a Native American from Gay Head.

If you wanted to apply to VP this year and couldn’t make it, next year’s applications open on 1 January 2015.

Busy busy busy

If posting is kind of sparse for a week or so, it’ll  because Jim Macdonald and I are down on Martha’s Vineyard, where we’ll be teaching at the Viable Paradise sf/fantasy writer’s workshop.

As usual, we expect to learn as much as we teach.  There’s something about hanging out with a bunch of fellow writers and talking about technique and craft and what Edward Gorey so aptly referred to as “the unspeakable horror of the literary life” that works that way.

Of Course It’s a Good Post; After All, I Agree with It

Jonathan Owen, over at Arrant Pedantry, on twelve common mistakes made by people who write about grammatical mistakes.

Fair warning, for those who want it:  Like most scholars of linguistics, he’s a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist.  (As the header of this post suggests, so am I.)  If descriptive grammar is the sort of thing that makes your milk of human kindness go all sour and curdled, you probably don’t want to go there.

Gently Does It

Or, yet another cause of reader disgruntlement.

Readers – especially readers of fiction — don’t like being pushed to a particular conclusion.  They want to feel like they got there all by themselves.

Writers, on the other hand, often have specific conclusions that they want their readers to reach: this character is good and noble, and should be loved and respected; that other character is bad and wicked, and deserves whatever bad fate is coming to him or her; this course of action is socially useful and morally desirable and worthy of emulation; that other course of action is thoroughly despicable and morally bankrupt, not to mention just plain tacky.

The urge to make all of these things crystal clear to the reader is a hard one to resist.  But resist it we must, lest our stories end up sounding like the adventures of Goofus and Gallant of Highlights for Children fame.  (Surely I’m not the only person out there who as a young reader used to fantasize about staking out the insufferable Gallant over an anthill?)  I’ve talked before about the dangers of over-subtlety, but this area is one of a handful of places where the big danger lies in the other direction.  When you’re luring the reader to your desired conclusion, you need to be subtle as all heck about it – plant the necessary clues well in advance, but don’t point at them while you’re doing it, and for heaven’s sake don’t have your protagonist monologue about your conclusion afterward.

If you find it hard to tell whether or not you’re being over-obvious – and most of us do, at least some of the time – the answer is the same as it is for worrying about being over-subtle:  Find a trusted beta reader, preferably one who’s coming at the story cold, and ask them.

Then trust their judgment and fix the problem.

This One Brings Up Some Interesting Ideas

A blog post over here, by author Erica Smith, about the ever-present tension in historical fiction/historical romance writing between historical accuracy and reader entertainment.  Do follow the outbound links; they lead to yet more discussion and commentary by other writers in the field.

It’s an ongoing matter of contention, apparently, and (to my eye, at least) yet another angle on an old argument.  Classical tabletop wargamers used to (and for all I know, still do) debate for hours about the relative virtues of simulation and playability – the more accurate the simulation in a particular scenario, the less evenly-balanced the game.  Likewise, back in the days when I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, the “fun versus authenticity” debates were a staple of the local discourse.

I’m a big fan of fun and playability, as a general rule (otherwise, I’d never have been able to watch the historical flashbacks in Buffy and Angel with a straight face); but I’m also a fan of historical fiction and romance played according to the strict rules of the game, which includes taking into account the fact that people in the past were not men and women just like us only in funny costumes.

I suppose it’s kind of liking both authentic, straight-from-the-source Italian cooking and the spaghetti-and-meatballs your born-and-raised-in-the-heart-of-Texas mother used to make at home.  Which one you want on a particular day depends a lot upon how you feel at the time . . . and they’re both of them good, too, just as long as you remember that they’re not the same thing.