High School Kid Surveys Famous Novelists

I read something really funny on Mental Floss and I just had to repost some of it here.

This 16 year old high school student got tired of arguing with his English teachers that the symbolisms they saw in the novels they read in class were mostly just the teacher’s mumbo jumbo. Rather than wasting his time trying to argue, he built a survey and sent it out to a 150 novelist. 75 of them replied. 12 are shown in this short article and their replies are both interesting and amazing.

I listed a few of the ones that I thought were the best answers.


“My definition of symbolism as used in this questionnaire is represented by this example: In The Scarlet Letter there are four major characters. Some say that Hawthorne meant those four to be Nature, Religion, Science or other similar symbols in disguise. They apply the actions of the four in the story to what is presently happening or will happen to Nature, Religion, Science, etc.”

Ayn Rand: “This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true—and therefore, your questions do not make sense.”

Ha ha. I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand, but in this case, I think I agree with her 100%.  Nonetheless, I have heard that writers do use this type of assignation for their characters.  There is one novelist in particular who said this in a workshop, but I won’t tell who.


“Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

I wish some of my students would pay attention to Ray Bradbury’s response. I get a few students who come from English Literature backgrounds who insist on hammering in a metaphor and a symbol. It makes me feel so bad for the poor story, to be abused so.


“Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes:

[“Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”]

What an intelligent response.  That really is something to ponder.

Check out the full range of responses on the Mental Floss Article


Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

%d bloggers like this: