In a previous article, Developing the science fiction reading skillset, I talked about an article written by Jo Walton over at Tor.com. The article was on SF reading protocols and how science fiction readers develop a skillset to read science fiction.
In the same article Jo also covered the opposite of this. The mindset (or skillset if you like) that literary readers bring to their reading. The expectation that if it’s written it must have some form of metaphor associated with it.
Sherylyn, my writing partner, is part-way through a writing course. Last year she completed a subject called Myths and Symbols. One thing her lecturer kept telling the class was that ‘all stories have hidden symbolism’. I disagreed with this because I know that when I write—and I think Sherylyn would probably say the same about her writing—I am definitely not trying for symbols. I am telling a story, and it’s not usually a story fraught with symbolism, it’s a story about a person or persons and what happens to them. But … according to the lecturer, symbology is always there, even if you, the author, don’t know that you are writing it in.
While I agree that themes do creep into some stories—and sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes it’s subconscious—I do not, consciously or sub-consciously, lace my stories with the type of symbolism the lecturer was talking about. If my main character wears a red dress it does not mean she is a slut or a sinful woman, which is one of the commonly accepted symbologies associated with a red dress. Nor does it automatically mean she that she is strong and fiery, another commonly accepted symbol. If I say, in my book that she liked the colour, or that she wore it because her (now-deceased) husband said it suited her then that’s why she’s wearing it.
Jo has some good points to make about how literary readers expect a story to have symbolism and metaphors; that they go looking for them, even when they are not there.