On symbolism and reading books you don’t like

Do you pick up on symbolism in the books you read? Do they ping at you like little neon lights for the book’s themes, or do they bob past you innocuously, and only subtly and subconsciously exist? Or are you reading this thinking, Whaaaa??? There are themes in books? Haha!

There’s no right or wrong answer. That’s the glory of reading: it’s all subjective. We all read differently, bringing our own universe of knowing to the text. It’s what makes book clubs so thrilling!

So I took myself along to a masterclass recently with Emily Bitto (her novel The Strays won the 2015 Stella Prize). I was excited. To be understated. And when I turned up to find I was one of only five in the little room off the side of the Adelaide Library, I was definitely more than a little bit starry-eyed.

We explored theme, imagery and symbolism. I love this stuff. It took me back to uni and high school days, to plunging deep into words and sentences and paragraphs to find hidden things the author surely secreted there for us geeky literary gold-diggers. It felt like dissection; plucking the strawberries from Jane Austen’s Emma and turning them around until our hands and mouths were messy with it. But I always wondered, did the authors knowingly write those things? And if they did, did they really want us to muddy the flow of the whole with our magnifying glass operative, and all for the sake of a good mark on an assignment?

Let’s clarify:
THEME is = a central idea. Macro level. Like Envy or Grief.
IMAGERY is = how the theme is worked out. Using language.
SYMBOL is = something universally accepted as representing something else. This is a bit more complex. Symbol relies on cultural understanding. On the reader’s understanding. And it is enhanced through repetition.

Importantly: a literary symbol combines a theme with an image.

This is what Bitto said at that masterclass that made me scribble wildly in my notebook:

“It’s okay to not be conscious of the themes at play. However, if we’re not, it’s easy to slot into the cultural symbolic norms or cliches.

Are you happy with that?

Or would you prefer to work against that?

You can work with them, but then complicate them, turn them on their head.”

In my first book, I have to admit that the themes, imagery and symbols arrived very organically. They just wrote themselves into the story. And after, I named them. Oh, hello there, I said. I see your colour, your texture, the way you keep turning up. I see how you are subtly pointing to the overarching theme. You can stay! And then I played, built on some, cut others out.

What Bitto’s clarifying masterclass has done for my second book (currently underway) is to bring a heightened awareness of what I’m playing with as I write. It’s like I’ve been standing at the end of a jetty, marvelling at the blurry forms of fish swimming beneath me — and then I’ve donned a pair of polaroid sunnies. Suddenly I can see the shimmering depth of the water, scales, fins, waving weed, shells.

Here are some other useful questions and prompts that helped me with my own writing:

  • What themes preoccupy you as a writer?
  • How does it relate to the themes of our times?
  • What does it reveal about the human condition?

Here’s a thing. Before attending Bitto’s masterclass, I thought it only right that I read her latest novel, Wild Abandon. And you know what? I didn’t like it. Not at all. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. In fact, I don’t think I even warmed to any of them. Later, I read Charlotte Wood’s fantastic The Luminous Solution on creativity and writing, and it challenged me:

“I clearly remember my country high school English teacher banning the words ‘because I can relate’ from our classroom. Whether we related or not, whether we liked a book or not, was of absolutely no relevance, she told us. The question, then, was what is the work doing on its page?”

Wood goes on to point out that our consumer culture has, of course, impacted literature. I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s been lured by a publisher’s ‘Love it or your money back’ marketing.

“We’ve been slowly but thoroughly trained to see the world in terms of its capacity to please us, and however romantic we might be about books, it’s naive to expect reading to remain somehow quarantined from this customer service perspective.”

Truth. But, in balance. Because, I’m sorry, but I am drawn to art that illuminates beauty. I can’t help it. It’s an innate impulse. Yet I also acknowledge the role that art has in challenging, pushing back, and exposing ugliness. Perhaps the books that rub us the wrong way teach us more than the ones that stroke us into comfortable reverie.

All of this rambling is to say that my brain’s been on a great journey of literary learning and thought, and I hope some of it’s been of interest to you. Happy reading and writing, friends!

2 thoughts on “On symbolism and reading books you don’t like

  1. Thank you for sharing your ramblings Claire and also the golden insights you gained from the workshop. Reading this helps me to be a better teacher in homeschool; it reminds me to point out imagery and symbolism and theme while (or after) reading aloud. By the way, we are currently reading through as much Gerald Durrell as we can get our hands on. I can’t help thinking your treasures would love The Corfu Trilogy! Bye for now, C

    Liked by 1 person

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