Subtlety and Symbol
by Don Webb
Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.
You know what you mean; I know only what you say.
— two of Bewildering Stories’ mottoes
With the appearance of page 3 of the 2007 Fourth Quarterly Review, I sent a “Congratulations” message to all the authors whose works were Editors’ Choices for the fall season at Bewildering Stories. Many of them have sent kind replies, even though my message had necessarily been a mass mailing. To them I respond here with thanks and “Happy New Year.”
I replied that “The Spare Room” was a solid choice but that “The Last Bear” also ranked sixth on the Hot Potatoes list. That indicates to me that Arthur has keen insight into his own work. Arthur Vibert’s stock in trade is subtlety. He approaches his characters’ emotional issues by indirection: he builds up a scenario in detail and makes the reader fill in the blank. That’s no easy task; Arthur walks a highwire.
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Now, how do a few of the authors in issue 273 handle subtlety as an element of style? To what extent do they successfully indicate connections within their works without making the mistake of rubbing the reader’s nose in them, what I call “doing the reading for the reader” or “dropping a brick on the reader’s foot”? They, too, walk a highwire.
In “Thicker Than Water,” Sherri Hoffman creates two scenes: in the first, Sawyer is a newcomer to his family; he causes mischief but isn’t punished. At the end, he’s punished with his other brothers when they get into more trouble. The two “whippings” make an implied connection from which the reader can easily draw the appropriate conclusion about Sawyer’s new standing in the family.
On the other hand, Gay M. Walker’s “A Whole Lot of Empty” is not subtle at all on the surface; Jillian’s state of mind is described in detail. Rather, the subtlety consists in expecting the reader to recognize the story as an allegory.
There are two keys to the allegory: the endless wars in Asia and the indirect reference to hurricane Katrina. The readers must recognize those two clues in order to see Jillian as an allegorical representation of America after Katrina, as a country feeling “a whole lot of empty” and seeking to return to a crossroads where a wrong turning has been taken.
But is the allegory a little too subtle for some readers? Perhaps the character of Jillian tends to overpower it. As an allegorical figure, Jillian must return home; but viewing her as an individual we wonder why she settles for a lifetime of doing odd jobs in subservience to her grandmother rather than think of furthering her education. What has happened to destroy Jillian’s self-respect so completely? Or has that really happened? It’s hard to tell.
In Catfish Russ’s “Super Yamato,” the model ship is a symbol that is bound to puzzle readers. Why is the astronomer building a model of a ship that has never existed even as the doomsday shard approaches?
The ship model is a double symbol. The first key to it is that both the real ship and the model remain unfinished. Thus, they parallel the attempt — which is sabotaged — to send a space probe to deflect the onrushing asteroid. The second key is that the asteroid “shard” itself resembles the battleship by its shape.
Is the symbol so subtle that it’s likely to be overlooked? Perhaps a stronger connection could be made with defeat in the failure to build both the battleship and the spaceship. Perhaps a stronger connection could be made with the battleship-shaped asteroid. But there again, the author is on a highwire: at what point might he risk falling off into the obvious and “do the reading for the reader”?
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At this point it’s important to understand what a symbol is. Technically it’s a metaphor in which the referent is implied.
In a standard metaphor such as “My love is a red, red rose,” the referent is “love” while “rose” is the image. However, If we take the image further and say, “I kiss my red, red rose” or “I cherish my red, red rose,” then “rose” is pure image: it’s a symbol, because the referent, “love,” is taken for granted.
As we have seen in “Super Yamato,” symbols may have more than one referent; and at an extreme, Danielle Spinks’ “The Fracture” consists entirely of symbols: the girl on the swing, the carnival, the undersea scenario, and more.
As in “A Whole Lot of Empty” and “Super Yamato,” we need a key to the symbols in order to understand how they relate to one another. In “The Fracture,” there’s no danger of the author’s doing the reading for the reader; the reader needs help.
An explication of the symbology — one based on internal evidence — might reveal an underlying coherence in the work. But if we need an external key, such as an explanation of allusions to things outside the work, then the story is not subtle but enigmatic and arcane.
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Symbolism is a powerful literary device; it forces the reader to interact mentally with the text in order to understand it. Symbols work best when they create a coherent internal structure, as in “Thicker Than Water,” and when they have multiple referents within the work, as in “Super Yamato.” They work less well when the referents lie outside the work, as in “A Whole Lot of Empty” and “The Fracture.”
The very power of symbolism makes it hard to control. At one extreme, the symbol may remain unintelligible. At the other extreme, it may be superfluous, because the author succumbs to a fit of overcaution and explains too much. Retaining control of symbol and allusion is a highwire act for any author. In the end, readers will understand a symbol only if they know what the referent is.
Copyright © 2008 by Don Webb