Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The Art of Fiction
There are three types of people to whom Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers will be of value.
2. Writers who enjoy the novels of Ayn Rand
3. Critics of Ayn Rand
I fall into the second category, but found myself skipping several sections at the start of this book where Rand describes her philosophy of life (much as I did in Atlas Shrugged during John Galt’s speech, now that I come to think about it). It’s one thing to have controversial views on modern art or modern literature, but readers may be turned off by Rand’s views of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce.
…he uses words from different languages, makes up some words of his own, and calls that literature.
I wonder what she would have made of Tolkien.
The book does have its good points, though. Rand discusses using concrete terms and actions to convey abstracts such as character. She also shows the importance of theme, how this ties in to plot and how scenes can be constructed to express both.
For instance, two of her protagonists have a love scene just after a great and controversial achievement which has joined their careers. Both their success and the culmination of their attraction unite to give the scene even more impact. It was a good example of how to structure a plot to bring out drama.
My favorite part was the section on characters. Rand has been criticized – sometimes rightly so – on her characterization skills, but here she demonstrated an interesting technique. She rewrote the dialogue between two characters in The Fountainhead to show how much can be conveyed between the lines, even though the characters were in effect saying the same thing. The subtly altered dialogue gave an entirely different impression of the people involved.
There’s also good advice on using a present object or present event at the start of a long flashback, and then mentioning that object or event again at the end of the flashback. It should signify to the reader that the story is back in the present. But there were other suggestions with which I disagreed.
Do not use obscenities – and never mind all the arguments about “realism”.
There’s a time and a place for all terms, even four-letter ones.
By “journalistic references”, I mean the names of living authors, political figures, song hits – any proper names which pertain concretely to a given period. The rule is: Do not use anything of this nature more recent than a hundred years.
Two words: Stephen King. Rand’s argument is that the use of brand names and actual people will date the story, will anchor it too much in a specific time and place. But sometimes that’s the point. I don’t want to feel, when I pick up a Shopaholic novel, that it might as well be taking place in 18th century Tanzania. The setting, the historical figures, the styles, all those contribute to a spirit of place.
I like the abstract quality of Rand’s work, but I like the brand names in the Gossip Girl series too. That would probably have made me anathema to Rand, but so it goes.
Another problem is the frequent referring to Naturalistic vs. Romantic literature, and woe unto you if you’re on the wrong side. Rand’s novels, on the other hand, are portrayed as more or less perfect and consistently held up as examples of what to do, which can get a little wearying. A couple of exceptions, though: this book deconstructs two beautifully written descriptions by other authors and does so well.
In conclusion, The Art of Fiction isn’t for most people. On page 12, Rand even goes so far as to claim, “If to any extent you hold the premise of nonobjectivity, then by your own choice, you do not belong in literature, or in any human activity, or on this earth.” If you can overlook that kind of thing, and if you liked her novels or her philosophy to begin with, you might enjoy this book.
For everyone else, there are other books on writing where the authors don’t vote you off the planet.
Interesting coincidence, by the way: I’d wanted a copy of this book for some time, and I finally bought one on April 14. Later I read that on April 15, 1943, the first edition of Rand’s The Fountainhead hit the presses (after rejections from twelve editors).
Update on promotion:
Day 13 (April 18) : Created a profile on LibraryThing.
Day 14 (April 19) : No promotion. Hematology practical exam.
Day 15 (April 20) : No promotion. Hematology final exam.
And now the semester is done. Champagne all around!