Why Even Ayn Rand Can Teach You Something About Writing

Here is a beautiful coincidence: my eBook version of Ayn Rand's lectures on The Art of Fiction has a typo that tells you everything you could wish to know about what makes a poor writer. See if you can spot it:

Literature is an art form which uses language as its toot.

Language as flatulence. Literature that relies on a lot of hot air being blown in all directions.

Ayn Rand is the author of Atlas Shrugged, one of the most embarrassing novels to be caught reading. She also gave us The Fountainhead, the most elaborate apology for fascism ever written. While I am indifferent to Atlas Shrugged (it is Objectively Bad), I have a fondness for The Fountainhead because it's so sweetly unaware of what it represents. That's my disclaimer. I'm not a fan of Ayn Rand's novels, and her politics equate to pissing in public because I goddamn built this street in the first place, plebs.

But Ayn Rand does have something to teach us. Let's focus on the first two chapters of The Art of Fiction. Look at this passage:

I can give the reason for every word and every punctuation mark in Atlas Shrugged — and there are 645,000 words in it by the printer's count. I did not have to calculate it all consciously when I was writing. But what I did was follow a conscious intention in relation to the novel's theme and to every element involved in that theme. I was conscious of my purpose throughout the job — the general purpose of the novel and the particular purpose of every chapter, paragraph, and sentence.

Forget the stupidity of that opening remark — that she can tell you why every punctuation mark is where it is in her big, big book. If you take that seriously, you also have to believe her masterpiece assertion that "In regard to precision of language, I think I myself am the best writer today" — and believing that, well, that would cause the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to blow up because you can't just rearrange the universe however you want to, Ayn. The value of that passage comes from the confidence she shows when she discusses her novel. It's a bad book. It's not as bad as certain people pretend, but it's not a good book by any stretch of the mind. But Ayn Rand defends it, and believes in it unconditionally. She's a hero to herself, and a complete monster to everyone else — and millions of people buy her books even today, lured in by the myth she created.

I'm convinced, irrationally and in an entirely non-Objectivist way, that in talking about anything by Ayn Rand you stand to gain a good deal, intellectually. Almost every single one of her oracular pronouncements is a problem. Ayn Rand herself is still a problem. She said things, and she said them so cruelly and unsubtly that it's difficult not to laugh, think, vomit and grow all at once. If you want an education in how to talk about the craft of writing, you can't afford not to pay attention to Rand. Her intelligence was wasted on her "art", but the nonsense she said in justification of that "art" will irritate and rouse to passion even a Zen monk:

The "nonobjective" is that which is dependent only on the individual subject, not on any standard of outside reality, and which is therefore incommunicable to others. (…) The best-known example of a nonobjective writer is Gertrude Stein, who combines words into sentences without any grammatical structure or meaning. She is still to some extent laughed at, but people are laughing rather respectfully… (…) A writer who is not laughed at, but taught in universities as something very serious, is James Joyce. He is worse than Gertrude Stein; going all the way to the ultimate in nonobjective writing, he uses words from different languages, makes up some words of his own, and calls that literature.

I'll refrain from making any wisecracks about Ayn Rand's dismissal of Stein and Joyce, because by the logic she establishes in that first sentence, her conclusion is hard to argue with. If "nonobjective" writing is writing that focuses on the individual and makes no consistent reference to the Outside, then sure, Joyce and Stein are difficult grapes for someone like Rand to digest. But the idea that something "incommunicable to others" would be without merit is a troubling one. I think, in fact, it's an impossible idea for me: an idea that just makes no sense at all, and the senselessness itself is probably incommunicable to others. Rand treats language as a potentially pure and transparent medium through which we can say exactly what we want to say. I take issue with that, but I'm a little ant compared to the hardcore theorists of the 1960s and 1970s who also took issue with it. If language really does have that potential for crystalline clarity and unfailing precision, then maybe we should consider writing "objectively" after all.

But even our daily experience shows otherwise. I can hear the sentence "Thanks a lot" in a way entirely opposed to yours, if you're saying it sarcastically and I'm not clued in to the sarcasm. In Rand's world, perhaps, the context (the objective reality being described) would make it clear whether you're saying "Thanks a lot" sarcastically or not. Fair enough. But objective reality is not as easily defined as Rand pretends. If it were, maybe we'd already agree with her in the first place. Whatever you make of these seeds of a debate, it's worth thinking through Rand's propositions. They're not neutral, and they're not meant to win her any friends. That means they are difficult to ignore. James Joyce used language in an exceptionally elastic and "unrealistic" way, but in so doing he showed us just how much more you can do with language than Rand admits. You can turn language into a musical instrument, a scythe, a guillotine. For Rand, language, and in particular the language that makes "literature", should be used only as a scalpel. I assume she would have us read Atlas Shrugged as a model of conciseness. I find the prose of that novel extremely tedious and uninspiring — not the kind of style that would have made me want to be a writer in my teens, in any case.

But to be fair to Rand, the language in Atlas Shrugged, in its exceptional banality, is clear, accessible, and mostly concise, if you read it uncritically. It's boring, but it does convey Rand's clinical and unemotional mind quite accurately. It's a weird irony, but the stylistic ponderousness of Atlas Shrugged is indeed a reflection of reality: Ayn Rand's reality, the Objective External World to which she was so fond of referring. If there's a problem here, it's that "reality" is a difficult thing to define, and the only reality shown in Atlas Shrugged is Rand's reality, the world as she saw and tried to shape it. In other words, in the couple of weeks it can take you to read Atlas Shrugged, you're stuck ignoring the prose and trying to make sense of the "ideas" themselves. One point for Rand: her language, her prose, is so ignorable that you really do have to focus on the world it's trying to evoke.

Rand didn't mean "toot" but "tool": Literature is an art form which uses language as its tool. The problem with this is that there is an emphasis on the word tool, but no elaboration whatever on what art should be. We understand, from reading on, that using language as a means in itself is a no-no, but that's when a difficulty emerges. If literature is an art form using language as a tool — what is it using this tool for? What is it building? Rand made her literary career out of telling us epic stories about very simple but unpopular ideas: Man has a duty to himself first, and so on. But is that what art is, to Rand at least? Is art an expression of certain ideals — ideals that transcend the medium by which they are expressed? If that's the case, I have no doubt many will agree with her. Many others will not. When we read a page of gorgeous, intricate prose, we are admiring the tool as much as the ideal: we're looking at the "how" as well as the "what". We feel — at least I do — that when the sentences go so well together that they form a few paragraphs of brilliance, we're seeing art manifest itself. It's not always about the rational underpinnings of the content. It's not always about using the hammer of language to build a cathedral to Mankind; sometimes we just want to see someone swing the hammer gracefully.

My book isn't even out yet and already I can't convincingly pretend I'm able to explain why I picked the words I did. And it's not a 645,000 word book. For Ayn Rand to suggest that Atlas Shrugged can be broken down to the level of punctuation is literally incredible: I do not believe it. It smacks of boasting, of course, but more crucially, it makes me think of factories, of cogs and wheels, of construction without artistic license. It suggests rigor but not vigor. The mundanity of her prose, the barely detectable development of her characters, the 60-page philosophical rant towards the end: all these things suggest that Rand was not actually interested in being an artist. The reason she gives us such a useless definition of literature is that she doesn't give a damn about literature.

Yet The Art of Fiction collects, without irony, her lectures on how to go about creating works of art with words. That's the mystery, and the greatness, of the whole thing. She definitely developed opinions on what art should be doing, but they contradict just about everything that makes literature important for most readers. Going through these lectures with a critical eye is a wonderfully frustrating experience. I disagree and get angry the entire way through, but the disagreement and the anger are educational.

It's like vegetables when you're a kid: even if they're raw and nobody really cares if you eat them, you should still taste them. You'll figure out why you like the cooked ones better.

Image of The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers
Author: Ayn Rand
Price: $12.25
Publisher: Plume (2000)
Binding: Paperback, 192 pages

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Comments

Ryan Hartman's picture
Ryan Hartman from Philadelphia is reading The Neverending Story by Michael Ende December 28, 2011 - 5:49pm

So wait, are you an Ayn Rand fan? 

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq December 28, 2011 - 7:30pm

I don't like Rand at all. It's ironic that she uses the art of literature to dehumanize people, calling the poor parasites that need to die off, especially when art is the language of humanity.

Fictional Paper's picture
Fictional Paper from Chicago-ish is reading Grimm's Fairy Stories December 28, 2011 - 8:01pm

I liked Atlas Shrugged a lot. I certainly don't consider it high art. I think of it as a twisted fairy tale. I will not be reading this Ayn Rand book, however, because I need that kind of frustration like I need a hand cramp. Sure, I can write through the pain...but why?

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 28, 2011 - 8:33pm

I can understand someone not liking her writing style, it isn't for everyone. However it cracks me up that people think that Rand's ideas are bad but they like 1984.

stunnerprince's picture
stunnerprince from Singapore is reading Bad boy drive December 28, 2011 - 8:52pm

Ayn Rand is awesome. Period. Your article here should be about writing and not bashing an author unnecessarily.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading December 28, 2011 - 9:30pm

I'm not sure this counts as "unnecessary bashing" but then again, your argument consists of the word "Period."
I assume you're not interested in actually having a debate.

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged December 29, 2011 - 12:09am

It could mean 'toot' as in 'to toot one's own horn.' Okay, she probably meant 'tool,' that would be a decidely more Randian analogy, but it also could have been the publisher's fault. It's not like they had computers back then.

Overall, I share many of your criticisms of Rand. I have yet to read Atlas Shrugged, but I've read The Fountainhead and Anthem and both were very diffiult to read just because her conclusions so often made me angry. No author has been able to get under my skin the way Rand does. The only reason I haven't gotten to Atlas Shrugged is because I dread the anger it will incite within me.

Yet, I disagree with your notion that hollow but well written passages have literary value. If your goal is to just make something that sounds well when read aloud, poetry's probably a better medium (and restricted to one's own journal). I don't disagree with the way Rand viewed and used literature, I just disagree with her core philosophy. To me, her Objectivism with a capital 'O' is to Nietzsche what Baptists are to the Bible. She takes it literally and then makes a religion out of it. The Fountainhead is filled with paraphrases and allegories taken from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Here's a couple of quotes from The Fountainhead that I thought were interesting:

"We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form."

". . .[P]erhaps the basic secret scientists have never discovered, the first fount of life, is that which happens when thought takes shape in words."

And here's one I hated (pretty bad to hate a quote so much you write it down):

"One can't love man without hating most of the creatures who pretend to bear his name."

If someone asked me for a definition of evil, the answer could probably best be given by handing them a copy of The Fountainhead.

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged December 29, 2011 - 12:16am

Dwayne, I don't understand your comment. You know that Orwell was a socialist, right?

"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."

"In my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated."

Sure, 1984 is critical of Soviet Russia and Rand was critical of Soviet Russia, but I think that's about the only thing Orwell and Rand had in common. Rand wasn't just critical of the Soviet version of socialism, she was critical of all forms of socialism or welfare.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing December 29, 2011 - 1:18am

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a lightbulb -- forever.

Gareth's picture
Gareth from Melbourne is reading Franz Kafka December 29, 2011 - 8:45am

I know very little of Ayn Rand but I can't really agree with what she says here.  By unobjective I think she means self-indulgent.  Some books (not all) that are 'unobjective' or not entirely clear, concise or banal can be, because of this style, very engaging.  

As for Joyce, he certainly made a lot of people think.  It's a balance; no writing works as either completely banal or completely incommunicative.  Only a fool feels that they have to pick one.

Zelda Zeezeewriter Markowicz's picture
Zelda Zeezeewri... from Chicago is reading Holdays on ice. David Sedaris December 29, 2011 - 12:27pm

"But Ayn Rand does has something to teach us."

 

I read a few of her books in the sixties. I guess I'm surprised that she has reemerged onto the scene with such a vengence.  Ayn was an opinionated broad. I don't have to agree with everything she said or how she said it. 

I read her books to be entertained, not enlighted. At least I made it to the end, unlike so many other books. 

Ayn believed that man is selfish, by nature.  I must agree.  She believed that everything we do is an act of "self-actualization".  Even acts of selflessness reward the doer with a sense of pride and worth.

It's easy to take on other authors, especially when they can no longer defend themselves.

If I were to take-to-task other writers; it is those who use their gift of communication to write books with hidden agendas.  Ayn's agenda was never hidden. You could take it or leave it.

As for her style of writing, who can say?  You like it or you don't.  She sold a boat-load of books.  She must have been doing something right. 

Just my opinion.  I could be wrong.  Zee Zee

Mick Cory's picture
Mick Cory from Kentucky is reading everything you have ever posted online and is frankly shocked you have survived this long December 29, 2011 - 3:23pm

 

   "Ayn believed that man is selfish, by nature."

 

   Hear! Hear!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated January 11, 2012 - 8:27pm

Both of them wrote about loss of personal freedom.

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "V." by Thomas Pynchon March 13, 2012 - 12:38am

I think Atlas Shrugged is fairly well written. Sure, the woman was a lunatic in most ways, and her philosophies are considered blasphemous by nearly everyone, but that doesn't mean that everything about it is atrocious.

cdregan's picture
cdregan from outside of Philadelphia is reading The Corrections June 3, 2012 - 3:26pm

Nathaniel Branden wrote an autobiography about his 18-year affair with Ayn Rand. The book portrayed both sides of Objectivism and Rand, and how her philosophies and opinions were incredibly unforgiving. Those opinions also changed, depending on Rand's personal feelings for the person expressing an opinion.

She originally dedicated Atlas Shrugged to Branden, but deleted the dedication from every reprint after he ended his affair with her. She got into a war with Branden, denouncing every word he had ever written as false and 'non-objectivist'. He created, funded, and taught for many years in the Nathaniel Branden Institute, reinforcing all of Rand's philosophies. She had called him her intellectual equal... as long as he continued sleeping with her, that is. 

Rand was a paranoid narcissist who was cranked up on amphetamines through most of her career.

I was only able to read about 100 pages of The Fountainhead before I threw it across the room. I thought it was a tragedy for the trees of the world. 

A Critic's picture
A Critic June 3, 2012 - 9:15pm

She also gave us The Fountainhead, the most elaborate apology for fascism ever written.

Uh, that book was an anti-fascist screed. Rand has no shortage of faults but pro-fascism is not one of them.

Forget the stupidity of that opening remark — that she can tell you why every punctuation mark is where it is in her big, big book.

She was a crazy tweaker obsessed with the details. I think that's insanity/drugs not stupidity.

Mark Timmons's picture
Mark Timmons June 23, 2013 - 8:22am

Leftists, Humanities majors, Cultural Marxists and other Human Embarassments are always bashing Ayn Rand.  Enemies like that are the best thing any serious person could ask for!

I am, however, disheartened that these types continue to dominate the "social" sciences.  They are all such cowards, so cultish, so predicatibly unoringal in their parrotting of Polticial Correctness.  They are a force to be reckoned with, rather like the old USSR - everyone had to pay heed to them, but only because we feared them.  The same is basically true with the PC Leftists and looters that liter the humanities departements today.

No one would hire them to fix a sink.  No one has any respect for them.  But for the moment, we fear them.  They are a mass of government supported PC theologians that make the rest of us miserable.  Hopefully, the new evolutonary scientfic advances will continue to make inroads into the world of literature, social science, economics, etc.

This may clear out the debris currently holding those positions.  Then we can have serious intellectuals in those fields.

Mr.Rolight's picture
Mr.Rolight October 28, 2013 - 1:00pm

(@Mark_Timmons)

I'm afraid, Mark, you cannot claim evolutionary science to support Rand's philosophy, or indeed anyone else's. Science makes a claim for how things are, or appear to be; not for how they should be.

Furthermore, the recent advances in evolutionary science, particularly in evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology have demonstrated good empirical evidence that advances the idea that the extreme physiological development of the pre-frontal cortex in humans was necessary to nurture strongly interconnected social groups that relied upon concepts of empathy, sympathy, caring and sharing and that these 'higher' emotions were probably imperative to ensure the survival of a species that was forced by its own success to live relatively peacefully in ever greater numbers.

To claim that human brains are primarily concerned with primitive instincts is to reduce them to little more than spinal cords. Sure, we do have innate primitive urges that force us to feed, fight, flee and f*ck, but so do chimps, who also display a capacity for empathy, sympathy, caring and sharing. That we do it better is a testament to how much we've 'progressed'.

To regognise that we have basic animalistic urges and then build a quasi-rational philosopy calling these urges our true 'virtues' is astoundingly glib, and fundamentally wrong. To then call this philosophy Objectivism, as if somehow you have access to the answerbook, and to make the claim that everything you say is demonstrably true misrepresents and is demeaning and disrespectful to anyone who's actually done the research. Ask the evolutionary scientists what they think of Rand, don't assume they would naturally agree with your slipshod concludions; they don't.

But this is a literary site, so I'd like to speak more about that. I shall offer my subjective opinion understanding that it is subjective. Firstly I think the above piece is perhaps too kind and respectful to Rand, though I do speak from only limited experience. To see for myself what all the fuss was about, I recently tried to read Atlas Shrugged, and found it impenetrable; certainly not in any intellectual sense, in the way I found Being and Nothingness by Sartre impenetrable, but in a temporal efficiency sense. I felt I had better things to do with my time than read a tome that was presented in the literary style of a talentless adolescent with pretentions of grandeur. It was as if every utterance was meant to be profound, and each profundity more profound than the last, or the next. It disappeared up its own backside on the first page and I quickly tired of the author rummaging around in there in the awe she so clearly felt about her own effluent describing the virtue of bile and excrement. I wasted 26 pages of my life before giving up and cleaning my windows. On a positive note, I now have an uspoilt view of the park, and people seem to be enjoying themselves. Sigh.