I remember that the two dirtiest words in an English course discussion were “author’s intent.”
Summarily, the discussion basically the cuts the same way every time: one side says that author’s intent is negligible, creators aren’t always cognizant of the significance of what they’re creating and the other says that we must respect the genius inherent to the craft, every little thing is in its proper place and there for a reason.
Good rule of thumb is to be a middling son of a gun. Writer’s aren’t gods, but the good ones ain’t slackers either. (Except for me. I wear my hat backwards and am late to stuff).
Anyways, this discussion generally leads to another popular discussion: “Is symbolism intentional?”
Again, it depends. And I’ve found that the answer can be yes and no about any particular symbol.
In an episode of Radiolab, Paul Auster describes what he calls “rhyming events,” and he uses the real world example of a girl he dated in college that had a piano with a broken F key and later that year, on a trip to rural Maine, they encounter an old (abandoned?) Elk’s lodge with a piano… that had a broken F key.
Uncanny? Sure. Does it mean anything? I think Auster mentioned it because there’s a certain unworldly profundity to the circumstance that he doesn’t understand. And a theist could point to the hand of God underlining a certain meaning and an existentialist would write in their own meaning as to how it’s to be interpreted and a rationalist would say that it’s just the hazard of coincidence. And so forth.
I think this question is one that Murakami plays with often. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World there’s a little, non-assuming detail about the main character– that his most prized possession is his whiskey collection. That the narrator is a heavy whiskey drinker is featured prominently, but when he describes the bottles he values, he lists Old Crow and Wild Turkey (among others,) the former being generally low shelf, the latter being middle shelf. Did this mean anything? Does it speak to a sense of emptiness that the highest possession of value is some of the cheapest bourbon on the market? Or was this just a sign of 1980’s Japan, when the foreign whiskey market opened up, thus making Old Crow a hot item of the times? Does Murakami want me to be asking these kinds of questions?
I’ve also argued (in my head) about the recurring motif of lice in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. [cue montage to every line using the word “lousy”] Does this speak of Caulfield’s paradigm? That the world is a louse-ridden, filthy place? Or is Salinger just tapping into the common verbiage of an angsty teen? Am I cheated out of anything if the second turns out to be true? Does it make it the first interpretation any less true? History has shown that it’s not the best idea to overthink Catcher in the Rye.
Another quick example: IS PAUL DEAD? Quick take: No, but The Beatles sure loved to keep the meanings of their songs ambiguous, and probably played into the hoax as it unravelled the minds of acid tripping college radio DJs.
For writers, it would seem that woven-in symbolism is optional because it might happen anyway. Disregard the question of intentionality entirely because, successful symbolism and underlying conceptual themes ask the reader questions, instead of attempting to define anything concrete.
That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to massage meaning into your own work. That means that you first have to keep it open.
Riffing of Auster’s terminology, I’ve noticed that there are resonating frequencies in my own work. In the first draft, it’s my job to create opportunities for these moments, these scenes, details, dialogue to resonate. Just like Auster’s example, I’m writing about circumstances that appear to have profundity, even if I can’t quite place what’s so profound. It might not be the author’s job to place it, either.
Going back over them in the second draft, it’s my job to see which frequencies work together and tweak them so that they harmonize, and cut everything that’s singing out of key. The idea is to normalize a certain sense of complex language that it’s barely noticeable– casual readers can enjoy themselves, and thoughtful readers can dig in to some juicy concepts.
But when in doubt, it’s best to stick to basic storytelling first. Don’t carry the burden of making the cleverest, densest and heavily layered piece of fiction in the world. It’s been done and it sucks.
It’s also helpful to remember that a cigar can just be a cigar.
(Bonus round: Did I include the Kanji symbol as the header because it has some sort of significance or because I thought it looked like a haughty bird person holding a basket?)