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Often reading analyses of books and films, I find that the analytics derive conclusions from the specific food or beverage that a character consumes. The food appears to always be symbolic of something.

Now, I'm not completely oblivious to what food says about a character. But here's the problem: in my fantasy novel, I have people eating fruit, decorating rooms with flowers, using plants in metaphors - I'm giving flora a strong presence, because I want to emphasise the society's strong bond to the earth and the earth's natural cycles. So, I am, in fact, using fruit as a symbol.

But then, exactly because that's how I use fruit, my character might be eating a banana because a banana is what's in season. No phallic subtext intended.

Which leads me to the question - can a banana ever be just a banana? Or do I always need to be aware of all the messages each bit of food brings with it, and write under those constraints?

(This question is not specific to bananas. Freud just made bananas funny.)

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    WHne I hear banana, I first think "fruit", then "manager food", then "something not straight", then "some badly done product", … I had to read the answers below to find out what you are talking about. I guess the problem only exists if you target a specific age group. Or maybe it's country specific? – celtschk Mar 4 at 9:07
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    @celtschk: I think it's more about one's thought maps. If a person has something specific on their mind (whether it's sex or football) everything they see will be instictively canvased for puns. Oh, and experience. Banana was simply fruit to me until I started working with teenagers. I think they got me traumatised. ;) – SC for reinstatement of Monica Mar 4 at 9:42
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    @DarrelHoffman Like I said, "This question is not specific to bananas". That said, my novel is not set in medieval Europe, but in Sassanid Persia. No bananas, but no apples either. Grapes, figs, pomegranates, persimmons. Figs in particular have sexual associations in many cultures. Each of those fruit has its own season, (it's not only refrigeration that we have now, but also different cultivars,) so having a character "have a different fruit instead" is problematic. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 4 at 15:42
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    @Ruadhan2300, in Germany, we sometimes call software "Bananensoftware - reift beim Kunden" (literally "Banana software - matures with the customer", meaning we throw buggy software at the customer, let them find the bugs, and then fix them over time). I'm not aware of this usage for other products, in German. Funnily enough, I am not aware of where celtschk gets the "manager food" from. ;) – AnoE Mar 4 at 16:32
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    If your character eats a banana, I daresay he is not eating a symbol. Compare that to Magritte's This is not a pipe. – Lambie Mar 4 at 21:09

12 Answers 12

16

Write what you want to write: Accept what people want to read into it

This is a balancing act, but ultimately we're in La mort de l'auteur territory here.

Ultimately, readers are going to... read... things into what you have written. Some are going to read "overly" literally and miss your figurative intent. Others are going to reach for innuendo in everything that you, in your own head, meant literally. Subtext will develop. Critiques will form where random things are picked apart and you're left wondering when you even wrote the passage in question, because you don't even recall using that specific phrasing and certainly not with any intent for a particular interpretation of it.

Art has two sides. Any art. Any act of communication. There is the side of the creative experience. And there is the side of the interpretive experience. The more you try to strangle your art into a narrow existence of precise communication, the more sterile it becomes. This works in certain circumstances, but for fictional writing I find it to be generally detrimental.

You need to chose what you're okay with, in terms of what an audience interprets as how they experienced what they read, versus your intent in what you wrote. And you need to understand that if you're not okay with a specific interpretation, maybe you need to not write whatever you believe will lead to it: struggle all you want, get as explicit as can be, and all you've done is call attention to whatever it is in question.

Consider, if you read a passage where an author went out of their way to try to highlight that a banana was merely a fruit, merely meant literally—in a work with other figurative uses for other objects, no less—don't you think you'd find it significant that so much time was spent talking about bananas? Wouldn't it seem to, in its own way, be an act of emphasis? Wouldn't you question whether the author's narrative acts in regards to the banana might not have aspects of deception, in terms of trying to claim it is only meant to be a banana?

You can't win this, and you're the one starting it

People are going to read what they want to read, and their basis for that is what you put in front of them to be read. Writing is communication, and communication is always interpretive between the parties involved. Language alone is interpretive: we used a shared basis for meaning, but even with supposed authorities we still develop different interpretations of individual words, much less the nuances of those words in shifting contexts.

If you're using an item in a scene which has widely known and widely used alternate connotations, puerile or not, your only even marginally safe road if you are concerned is to remove it entirely, substitute something else for it.

One question I would have is, why is there even, explicitly, a banana at all? Why not just "a piece of fruit"? I love detail, but ultimately you're the one in control of what you write with detail and what you don't: and you can't escape the fact that the more detail you give, the more questions of whether there is a reason for that detail will occur in your audience. You put in the assumed effort and care to write it, why wouldn't someone think there's significance to the specific choices in what you wrote?

If you can't beat them, join them?

Sometimes the best foils for defusing something are your own characters. Rather than refuse the interpretation of readers, acknowledge that it will happen by letting your own characters engage in it.

The easiest way to control a narrative, inasmuch as one can, is to own it.

Many people make phallic metaphors out of bananas. They make jokes about it. They tease each other about it. Some people find this exceedingly juvenile. Some court it. Some are oblivious to it.

So rather than run away from this, use it. Your intent might not be to have your use of bananas have any lingering other meanings, but outside of literature, when has that ever stopped anyone from doing so?

Why do you expect it to be different with what you write?

How would your characters, if they were real people, actually act in this situation? You can still speak through them, at which point it's easy enough to have someone pick up on the metaphoric aspects and run with it—teasingly or more circumspectly—and someone else react, perhaps by becoming annoyed that they can't even "eat a banana in peace" (which would undoubtedly get its own reaction, leading in turn possibly to something like an exasperated facepalm and a request to just drop it or something similar).

If you're making choices in wording or scene that you know readers are likely to read into in particular ways beyond your specific intent in writing them, you need to accept that among other things, this is possibly a warning that your characters would also catch on to these metaphors, and skipping over them, particularly with characters developed in ways that would be more likely to pick up on the common metaphorical aspect and especially turn that into some kind of interaction (joking, etc) may actually draw more attention to that, and it will be in ways where you don't even get to have a say about how you feel in regards to that, through how your characters interact in that circumstance.

As a final note, to fall all the way back to Shakespeare, consider the use of (and then consider the ongoing layers of cultural connotations in relation to):

The lady doth protest too much, methinks

There are a number of answers that try various approaches in fulfilling your intent through trying to control or expand the surrounding narrative to try to explicitly set it in a non-figurative direction. I would argue that none of them will work with all of your audience, and most of them may actually exacerbate the situation you perceive as an issue, with the readers who are most likely to make this interpretation to begin with. Even my latter suggestion here (which is similar to @Sara Costa's excellent answer) of just letting your characters naturally play with it (*as she winces at her own wording there*) is going to have readers who still run wild with whether there's some further subtext going on about the sexuality of the characters involved or similar questions. That's part of why I worded the heading for it the way I did.

Pick your battles. If you don't want to have a struggle over a banana, don't stick a banana in it to begin with; or accept that, to some people, that banana is going to mean more than just a piece of fruit. Just know that the more you struggle to push that away, the more people will then find other reasons to read into it, and it still won't stop the readers for whom a banana is always a source of amusing metaphor whenever they encounter one in their lives, nor will it stop those who run wild with conjecture about just why a banana, in particular, was put precisely where it got stuck.

A piece of fruit

But as a final answer to your last question of "can a banana ever be just a banana", I leave you with a question in turn:

As an element of language, what is a "banana"? Actually?

You say it's a piece of fruit.

I say it's just a visual representation (using a set of symbols) of a phonetic structure that is commonly itself used as a symbol to represent a specific "type" of fruit (which in turn varies on how that is interpreted), which has a certain (general) visual to it (however, even the color is not a sure thing), which in turn is similar to other things visually, and of which that visual association is common in certain societies. What makes that phonetic structure a symbol referencing that piece of fruit? Nothing except our common acceptance that it does and further authoritative attempts to declare that this means that it has that meaning. So how does that differ from other symbolic aspects of it? If there's a common phallic association in a given society with a given item for which a given word is associated, how is that not effectively part of its living colloquial definition as a connotative aspect? As humans we run on symbols and patterns, our language (any language) is itself merely sets of symbols: you can't escape symbolic interpretation.

A banana is always just a banana. The error would be in assuming that means it's just a piece of fruit. A banana is always just a banana for however each individual interpreting the word into associated meanings individually perceives it to have meaning. Language is an attempt to form an agreement on the commonality of shared meaning such that intent can be transmitted and interpreted with some small degree of shared basis, but ultimately every piece of language and communication is interpretive based on how we have individually formed related symbolic associations.

It's important, I think, to flip this from a context derived from a conceit of authorial control and perception to being instead about the fact that we are all simply absorbing and interpreting symbols, and therefor as an author your own conception of those symbols is simply that: your own interpretation, individually. Ideally it's at least very close to how many readers will interpret it, but the act of writing is its own individual interpretative act, and even attempts at precision will only go so far, and will carry their own associated interpretations themselves.

51

I work with teenagers (language classes). 'Banana' is a terribly unfortunate word that will kickstart a flurry of giggling and joking. Woe befall the poor soul who says they like bananas!

Hopefully, readers will be easier to deal with.

In your particular case, you can use the symbolism to your advantage. If there are moments when the chosen fruit is clearly symbolic, it'll be easier to point out when it isn't. I'll carry on with the 'banana' example in homage to my students.

She reached for the fruit bowl and her hand hovered over the banana. If her brother were to see her, she wouldn't hear the end of the jokes. But the apples and pears on the bowl looked so unappealing. She picked the banana up and sat down, peeling it. Sometimes she wished people would just stop taking simple actions for secretly meaningful nonsense.

A bit on the nose but you get the idea.

In cases where symbolism plays no role in the plot, it is trickier. Perhaps making sure the character's thoughts are on something completely unrelated is enough.

She sat down with the banana to watch some TV. Oh, a horror film was on! She took a bite and relaxed as the protagonist screeched in terror at the axe-wielding clown.

Another option is to make it clear why the banana is a sensible option rather than something else.

She was getting hungry while typing the report. Almost without thinking, she reached for the fruit bowl and got a pear, but then stopped herself. Those pears were really juicy and it would end up dripping onto the keyboard. Better to eat a banana instead.

Although, if the reader has a teenage brain, there's nothing anyone can do. You can, of course, simply avoid mentioning the heavily symbolic food, but be warned! Even avoiding mentioning bananas while talking of fruit isn't a failsafe in a class of teenagers. If a reader really wants to read something into its presence and absence, there's nothing anyone can do.

To make it worse, if you're writing for a global audience, there's no way you can predict all the dangerous innuendoes. For example, tomatoes and eggs are a common way of referring to testicles in Portuguese and Spanish respectively and I have come across some situations where an innocent use of those two ingredients got a chuckle out of me. A male character can innocently claim he's out of milk, but not that he's out of eggs or tomatoes. It's inevitable, I suppose.

On the other hand, smirking at the possible naughty idea isn't the same as thinking there's a hidden reason for the use of that particular food. At least, not if the context clearly shows the guy is talking about the ingredients for his lunch rather than his body parts or his courage.

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    No, no, the lack of milk is clearly symbolic of his impotence. Orange juice. He's run out of orange juice. – David Richerby Mar 4 at 18:58
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    Basically, it's Poe's law, just with symbolism instead of sarcasm? – Arthur Mar 5 at 11:42
  • @DavidRicherby no, it turns out that he's trying to hide that he's from New York City and is out of ahrange juice. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 12:43
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    "Instinctively", "juice dripping down her chin", "She stopped herself"... doesn't even need the banana reference... – drjpizzle Mar 6 at 12:09
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I'm wondering why you want to ensure that readers don't interpret. Readers, and especially fans, love to discuss fan theories and interpretations. The discussion of fan theories about Game of Thrones on YouTube probably fills ten times the running length of the show. People want this, and no matter how much you try to, they will find something.

I share Cyns judgement about lit-crit class. In fact, when I was in school a long time ago, I got so fed up with the interpretation of poems that when the teacher asked if someone wants to submit their own poems to the class, I sat down on my computer and wrote a relatively simple random poetry creator. It was astonishing to see which deep meanings and complex symbolism people "discovered" in something that definitely had neither of that.

They will find it. Whether or not you put it in.

So don't worry about it.

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    Book says: "The curtains were blue." Lit class: "Blue curtains symbolize the protagonists struggles with depression and their isolation from the outside world." What the author really meant: "The curtains were &%^*ing blue." – user3067860 Mar 4 at 16:23
  • I really don't buy this. Poetry creation (writing) is neither random nor simple. – Lambie Mar 4 at 21:11
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    @Lambie: the program written by Tom was simple and made random poems. It doesn't mean they were good poems. In fact, you might think they didn't even deserve to be called poem. However, the moral of the story is that his class found nonetheless plenty of depth on it. – Ángel Mar 4 at 23:59
  • It's a funny anecdote. In fact you might end up struggling to ensure that the problam was provable to be random (eg. not using anything that could argued to be a source of non-random). I wonder the reaction of the teacher to your counterpoem, though. – Ángel Mar 5 at 0:04
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    It seems incredibly unlikely that poetry created by an algorithm using a PRNG will be meaningfully different from poetry created by an algorithm using any other source of entropy, so arguing about whether the algorithm is truly deterministic somewhere deep down seems to be missing the point. – Misha Lavrov Mar 7 at 3:17
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There's not much you can do about it other than controlling the tone of your scenes and making sure your characterization is stronger than your fruit.

If your reader is prone to connecting bananas to genitalia, that's what they bring to your book. You can't deprogram them.

6

Sometimes authors write in ways to drive future literary critics crazy. Then they laugh.

Because everything is potentially a symbol. If you've ever taken a lit-crit class, it's quite an experience. It's not that I can't see symbolism or that I don't want to, it's just that everyone sees something different. Some symbols are dead obvious and others are subtle but it's still easy to ascertain that's what the author meant. But other times, it's all a bit much.

Yes, be aware as much as possible about what certain things mean. Like with Sara's example...I speak Spanish so I knew about eggs. But tomatoes is a new one for me. But sheesh, if your characters are making a tomato omelet, go ahead and let them.

This is yet another reason for beta readers. Other people may catch stuff you miss. Maybe your characters are better off with broccoli in their omelet instead. Maybe not.

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    This is so true! I had a creative writing professor who analysed everything she read with a lit-crit mind, scouring for hidden meanings and symbolism. I'd turn in stories that had no hidden meanings or symbolism but she'd find it somehow. Then, she'd give me excellent marks for it's incredible depth. Who was I to put her straight and look a gift horse in the mouth! If you go looking for trouble, you'll find it! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 14:45
5

You must take responsibility for the fact that everything that occurs in your writing occurs because YOU placed it there, either consciously or subconsciously. Even if you are chronicling incidents from real life, you are doing so as filtered through your own experience and viewpoint. If nothing else, what you remember and what you forget are indicative of your own personal point of view.

Because of this, there will inevitably be layers of meaning and symbolism in your work, whether you want it there or not. Some of it will be what you chose to put in there --but it may be that the more powerful and meaningful symbolism is entirely unconscious.

I wouldn't recommend obsessing over the symbolism --that's an "excellent" way to paralyze your writing. Just write your best work, and trust that the symbolism will largely take of itself. Even so, I would submit that --for you --a banana cannot just be a banana, because if it could, you wouldn't have written a whole question interrogating your own choice to use it. If you really don't want that symbolism in there, just change it to a less suggestive fruit and have done with it (realism is nothing but a style).

4

TLDR: For a timeless classic, every bit of minutia matters. For everything else, don't worry about it.

If you are attempting to write an award-winning story that will be studied by students for generations to come, then every minute detail you specify will indeed be rich with subtext and symbolism. Were that not so for any particular detail, you would discard it.

Such works get analized to these extreme depths because those depths are present and intentional. The authors of those pieces presumably reduced and packed their stories to such agonizing lengths that if they separated a certain pair of words with two spaces instead of one, that signified something.

So if that's your objective, and you don't mean anything by specifying that your subject eats a banana, you'd better just call it a fruit.


Conversely, if your aim is more realistic (and most likely a much longer format such as a novel), then you can be much more cavalier about the the details you add simply to flesh out a setting. It is unlikely that many (or even any) readers will latch onto one of many specific details to which you are not giving extra attention.

Of course, if your works get famous, you'll probably attract some hardcore fans akin to conspiracy theorists. They'll find meaning you didn't (consciously) intend or even consider. That might even turn out to be a useful resource, so there's no real incentive to ward it off. Furthermore, if you want broad appeal, it's just as well to consider and accommodate some flexible interpretation as befits each reader's unique personality and perspective.

If readers want to decode the banana, it may be just as well to humor them.

4

Can a banana ever be just a banana?

Yes. I mention food in my writing, but not symbolically. In fact I almost never use any symbolism in my writing, at least not consciously.

[Must I always be aware of the cultural implications of certain foods?]

Not always, and as other answers point out, you probably cannot know every implication. Some reader may email you and ask "What is the symbolism of Henry eating Caesar's last meal right before he dies in battle?" The answer is, I am certain I did not know Caesar's last meal was mutton chops, no particular symbolism was intended. Random coincidence.

But if you know something, or learn something before publication (like from a beta reader), and in that light your story is either damaged or enhanced, you might change the food to something less symbolic, or exploit the symbolism as you see fit.

For myself, as a discovery writer, I am so immersed in imagining the scene and picking out details to describe and managing other elements, I don't have the time or inclination to engage in "meta" writing or "thoughtful" writing of symbols, themes, or parallels, or whatever.

When Alice is homesick and imagining the iron bridge at home, it is because that is beautiful scenery and iconic of her childhood home. The iron bridge is just a bridge over a river, not a symbol of a solution, it doesn't foreshadow any kind of metaphorical "bridging". I suppose it is a weak symbol, because for her it is the doorway to her home town, crossing that bridge is the instant she left home, and she longs to be back, and it is a "symbol" in that sense, her next step on that bridge (if she has one) will be the moment she has returned home.

If somebody tells me all three times Alice thinks of the bridge, somebody in her party dies: Okay, I need to fix that, that was unintentionally repetitive.

If I or somebody else notices I have inadvertently created a pattern, I will either make it more obvious, or scramble it. I really just want to tell a story, I disagree with the notions of "symbolism" and "depth" and even "theme" as necessary components of a story. At best, they are enhancements, which I lump under "cohesiveness" and "consistency" (of characters and setting).

I do like foreshadowing, and will look for opportunities to inject it on my first full revision of a completed story. (I can't before then, I don't know how the story will turn out!)

But symbolism and depth and even "theme" I find tiresome, I am never looking for it in a story, so I am not entertained by it. If somebody points it out later, it might be an interesting note, but if I didn't notice it when I was reading it then it doesn't make the story any better!

It is like when somebody has to explain a joke I didn't get -- That doesn't make it good joke, a good joke makes me laugh, it doesn't make me think, "Why would you think that is funny?"

The same goes for unintentional patterns. If somebody tells me my theme is X, but one of the big scenes violates that theme, I will revisit it, and may rewrite it to fit better.

I am not a prima donna writer; I do intentionally avoid emotional attachment to my scenes, I am also a big believer in "kill your darlings". Pace is extremely important, and things that interrupt the immersed reverie of reading (by content, by being too long and thus boring, by being incongruous, by distracting the reader with unintentional symbolism) has to go.

For example, I know my sex scenes are too long. So I write them, and then figure out how to cut them down to what I have learned is an acceptable length.

Every scene "does a job" of advancing the story, but if I discover it is not performing well, there has to be a better way of getting the job done smoothly, with a shorter scene, or a different scene, or distributing the job among multiple scenes, or something. There has to be a way to communicate the point without breaking reader immersion.

  • While I disagree with some of your more minor points against symbolism, this is overall a great take on the subject and something that many people should see as a counter to the traditional "Sex is great and all, but have you tried symbolism?" perspective. +1 – Sora Tamashii Mar 7 at 15:36
3

Actually a banana is always just a banana. A banana never means anything other than a banana.

What can have all those other meanings are your words and your vision of what happens. If you write "banana", there is a reason you write "banana". If you imagine the fruit in question is a "banana", there is a reason you are thinking about a "banana".

IMHO what you need to think is whether there is an actual reason for it to be a particular fruit or flower. If there is, tell that reason. If there is not, do not waste readers limited brain capacity by mentioning useless details.

Especially in speculative genres like fantasy there is a tendency by readers to assume that anything that the author bothers to detail has some relevance. This can be fun and can add depth but the choice you make about what you detail matters. If you mention specific fruits without a clear reason why you are mentioning the names, it is reasonable to assume the specific fruit has some hidden meaning.

So yes, if you tell bananas are being eaten and you do not give a reason why you are mentioning this, a banana ceases to be just a banana. Instead it becomes a banana with a hidden meaning.

If your message is that the food and decorations change with the seasons and availability, mentioning names is not really relevant. Majority of readers will not know when a specific fruit or flower is in season anyway. Just show the available selections changing and characters reacting to it.

The reaction can of course be to specific fruit. Somebody could really like bananas and be happy to get them or disappointed to not get them, for example. Having bananas might allow making a specific dish that leads to something worth mentioning.

  • I scrolled down all the answers just to see if someone pointed out control of information. Yep, found it. Folks, feel free to expose and omit satellite details as needed. Don't hang up on similar questions in the future, knowing it won't impact the story. Talk about other details and leave bananas out of it. – person27 Mar 7 at 4:26
2

In thinking about this, the Cavendish banana is a specific cultivar of bananas in general, and there are a wide variety of bananas (plantains, smaller, less sweet ones) eaten by different peoples around the world, in different modes of preparation and accompanying different foods.

Perhaps approaching the product from an entirely different perspective such as thoughts on biological variety, climate requirements and availability, range of sweetness/savoriness, style of preparation (e.g., frying plantains), could have the effects of:

  • setting the initial context as an entirely non-sexual one, and
  • perhaps effecting a 'cold shower' on the reader by starting with the objective/scientific treatment of the object, to a sufficiently clinical degree that you think would be enough to keep the tone focused on the story in the way you want to deliver it.

Bananas have strong comedic and sexual connotations; my instinct on this is that you may have to be a little heavy-handed along these lines -- with a few passes to get the 'weighting' correct -- if, and by how much, you want to redirect focus away from these natural propensities.

You could also look at the 'Love not Found' webcomic, which features flora heavily in its background, to see how it manages or ignores treatment of this issue.

  • Trying to forcibly counteract sexual connotation can backfire. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Besides, scientifically charged language does not equate to sexually inert and some will (correctly IMHO) only see the excessive focus on this detail. Regardless of what drives or informs it, the author cannot hide their own mind. – HonoredMule Apr 18 at 20:54
2

TLDR: For a book to be good, it is necessary that the reader interprets it differently than the author. It may irritate you, but it is a sign that the reader has found meaning in your book - and that's why people read books, to find a personally relevant meaning.


Humans have very selective attention and are only interested in information - from books or otherwise - which relates to them. When they read a book, they are not a tabula rasa into which the pre-chewed information from the book sinks in. Rather, the readers perceive the information contained in the book (plot, characters, emotions, moral statements, whatever) and connect it to all other information they already know, filter it through the lens of their own experiences and interests. They like books when the book resonates with them, when it evokes their own thoughts and emotions. A book which lectures at them without letting them space for making up own thoughts is perceived as hostile (although it can be embraced if the authors' position is very well aligned with theirs), and a book which does not evoke any further thoughts and interpretations is boring.

This means that the book gets transformed in the readers' mind, and it is that transformation that the reader values, not the original book in its "pure" form. Because the "pure" form, the one you intended, may have personal meaning for you, the author, but it is the readers' interpretation that the reader cares for, as it is something personal and has relevance for them. If this process doesn't happen, you wrote either propaganda, or a boring book.

So, you should not be trying to write a book that doesn't get reinterpreted by the reader. Instead, you should try to make your book as interpretable as possible, since then it will touch many, many people. For example, I once heard somebody say that Le petit prince is a great book, because anybody, no matter what age or life circumstances, can find something for themselves in it - and even that, when a person rereads it every ten years or so, they always discover something different in it (but still like it).

It is perfectly normal that some of the interpreted forms of the book will very different from what you wanted them to be. This may feel unpleasant on a personal level ("hey you are disfiguring my book!") but it is actually a sign of a healthy, good text. So my advice is to let it happen, and not try messing with the process of interpretation.

You cannot steer it in many of the cases anyway, since it is difficult to predict what associations a person will make. Some associations are deeply personal ("The last time I smelled gardenias was at my sister's wedding"), sometimes they are shared within a (sub-)culture (deeply religious people may associate fish with Christianity), sometimes they are so widespread that you can assume almost everybody from your culture to know them (e.g. "White is the color of purity") - but even in the last case, the same concept is a symbol for many things at once, and you never know which association will win in a given reader's mind at any given moment ("white is the color of a doctor's or nurse's uniform").

So, if somebody really has their mind in the gutter, you will never stop them from making associations when reading a scene with a banana in it. Or fungi, or melons, or carrots, or peaches. Similarly, a social justice warrior will always mentally divide your characters into oppressed victims and tyrants, a depressed person will see your happy end story as yet another sign that the world is terrible. This doesn't happen because there is something wrong with your book, it happens because your book struck a chord in them. And when you think of it, getting a depressed person to engage with a book, even if all they see in it is sad, is already a good thing.

  • "For a book to be good, it is necessary that the reader interprets it differently than the author." That statement could not be any more wrong. Good art of any medium is art that does what it is intending to do. If I say I am drawing an anime cat, but it looks like a photorealistic horse, just because it looks nice, that doesn't make it good art. As for everything else, the goal of a book is generally to use symbolism (or lack thereof) to express your desired message in a way the readers can relate to from their own perspective. Not to let them create a wholly different take contrary to your – Sora Tamashii Mar 7 at 15:25
  • intent. If I am trying to express "violence is bad," but my reader takes it as "war is good," then I did something very, VERY wrong. Flexibility of symbols is generally a good thing, but the flexibility shouldn't be so much that you "make your book as interpretable as possible" as that results in nobody understanding your work creating pseudo-philosophical garbage as opposed to something with actual depth. You can't fix bad writing by making it overly symbolic. At that point, you just leave everybody confused on what you want to tell the world and your message was not just lost, but wasted. – Sora Tamashii Mar 7 at 15:30
  • @SoraTamashii it seems that this time, you read into my answer something I didn't intend (and the irony is not lost on me). I am not arguing for writing overly symbolic books with the hope that everybody will jump into interpreting the symbols. I am arguing that, whatever book you write, people will still interpret into it whatever they are inclined, and only a small part of them will interpret what the author intended. So, a book written by a pacifist will likely to be interpreted as "war is bad" by other pacifist, as "meh, war, we all know people die in it" by the ... – rumtscho Mar 7 at 15:48
  • ... majority of the readers, and as "war is good" by those who like war in the first place. Or maybe, if the book is very in-your-face openly "war is terrible", the war-likers will realize that the book wants to tell them that war is bad, and will interpret it as "stupid book I won't waste my time on" without changing their opinion. And this is not because the author did something wrong, it is because that's how reading works. So, my advice is just to accept the fact that people will read unintended things into books as a fact, and move on without trying to correct it. – rumtscho Mar 7 at 15:50
  • Hey, I'd love to talk with you further about this, but this isn't the best place. How about we have a chat here: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/90752/… – Sora Tamashii Mar 8 at 1:02
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All things can be a symbol...

And sometimes what you intend it to be a symbol for is not what people take it to mean.

For example, if I describe my main character's room as having blue walls or blue curtains, I may have intended it to represent his generally cool/calm/collected personality. At the same time, a reader may take it as a symbol to represent a depressed state my character suffers from due to the plurality of meanings that symbol has. If I want to offset the "depressed" meaning, I need to include things that strengthen the intended meaning. There are two main ways of doing this: Refutation and Reinforcement.

"Refutation" is where you see the alternative meaning behind the symbol and introduce symbols with conflicting meanings to disrupt that impression. That could be by introducing yellow into the room via other items or even by mentioning how well-lit it is. This comes with the drawback of creating a situation where it could be further misunderstood, though. By introducing yellow undertones to the room, this could be seen as "He is happy on occasion, but is generally depressed." By introducing yellow as the main color and letting blue be the undertone, it could be seen as "He is putting on a positive outlook despite a deeper depressed nature." Finally, by using light as an illuminating detail for the room and drawing attention to the light, you give two equally powerful symbols: blue meaning "he is depressed" and light meaning "he is cheery". This creates uncertainty on which symbol is the right one and makes people look for other symbols to further reinforce or refute either message. In short, it tells your reader, "hey, if you thought blue meant he was depressed, you might want to think what else it could mean." Alternatively you could use the following...

"Reinforcement" is where you know that your symbol has multiple meanings, so instead of trying to force people to accept it does not mean what they think it means, you introduce additional symbols to support your intended meaning. For example, you could mix some green into the color pallet just like you would with yellow when refuting the "depression" meaning. By mixing in green, you evoke imagery of the sea which is commonly used to refer to tranquility. This can be further done by referencing a fish tank or aquarium, which is a direct reference to water and the sea.

But these are ideas for a different symbol. What about in regards to a banana?

Unfortunately, bananas have earned a place in infamy for their phallic symbolism. The purpose of using them isn't to symbolize something only a banana can be used for, so reinforcing their meaning can't be as easily done, and neither can refuting, at least not as long as it's a WHOLE banana.

Bananas have the sexual symbolism because of their shape and length. If you really want to use a banana because that is what is in-season, then you can refute the sexual symbolism by making it banana slices... but sliced bananas are also a symbol as well if used on their own. So, you need to mix in some reinforcement by including other sliced fruit as well. This allows you to build on the world a little by showing people what's in-season and reinforcing the connection to nature and the earth, while at the same time making sure the banana can't be looked at as a symbol on its own. At this point, your challenge would simply be in determining how you're going to word and write this so it doesn't feel clunky and out-of-place.

Or you could just use another fruit and not worry about the bananas at all.

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