Flannery O’Connor on symbols in fiction …
“Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader — sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated …
“I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.
“I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up.”
Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1969.
Comment by Janice Harayda:
Flannery O’Connor wrote these words more than three decades ago, when symbols might have scared off the common reader but not critics. Have you noticed how symbols now seem to scare critics, too? Newspapers and magazines regularly publish reviews that make no attempt to deal with symbols in long and complex novels that obviously have levels of meaning. This is often a sign that those publications are using weak or timid critics. It can also be a sign that that editors are allowing those critics to avoid dealing with books in all their complexity.
Mystery and Manners is one of the great books of the 20th century on the art and craft of writing. It is one of the few books on writing that I recommend to all fiction writers and readers who look for the “greater depths” in novel or short story. Another quote from Mystery and Manners appears in the March 12 post, archived with the March 2007 posts in and in the “Quotes of the Day” category.
(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.