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.

1. Objectivists

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!


fairyhedgehog said...

This was an interesting review. She seems to hold very strong opinions! What does she mean by "non-objectivity"?

Marian said...

Rand's philosophy has to do with rationality, individualism and capitalism, so I'm guessing non-objectivity would be the opposite of those in some way.

She really despised communism, self-sacrifice and irrationality, anyway. I'm afraid I'm not very good at grasping or explaining philosophy, though. And I tend to cherry-pick that kind of thing in Rand's novels.

But you're right, she did hold very strong opinions on everything. From what I've read, membership in her "inner circle" of friends/acolytes even depended on people's tastes in music. I'm going to see if the library has a copy of The Passion of Ayn Rand - it should make good reading for the summer.

fairyhedgehog said...

I don't think we'd have got on! Very interesting, though.

Marian said...

No, we wouldn't have got along either, and I actually agree with her on certain points. I disagree on others, though, and she didn't seem capable of tolerating such differences of opinion.

But the library does have The Passion of Ayn Rand and I'll be getting a copy in a few days' time. This should be... interesting.

Kami said...

Congratulations on finishing the semester!

Marian said...

Thanks, Kami!

Two more semesters left. This time next year I'll be preparing for Simulated Clinical, which takes place over the summer.

Then in fall next year I'll be in Clinical Placement, where the college will send me for an internship in a medical laboratory or hospital.

Finally it all culminates in the qualifying exams two years from now.

Then I graduate and get a good job and start paying off student loans. :)

Janna Qualman said...

Interesting, Marian! I've seen the book referenced, but this is the best breakdown. Thanks!

Marian said...

You're welcome, Janna! I consider the book a good addition to my library, but I don't want anyone to buy it without knowing exactly what to expect.

Enbrethiliel said...


Rand and I wouldn't have got along, either, but I sort of remain a fan of hers. =)

What strikes me about her counsel against "journalistic references" is that her novels have managed to become dated anyway. (What's interesting, though, is that they also very much have the air of the 1930s, even though they were written several decades later.) On the other hand, people who are reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time today often say that the things she wrote about then are still happening now. But I don't think that has anything to do with writing style!

Yet I don't think I'd ever take her advice on characters. I'm still rolling my eyes at her description of Victor Hugo's characters as abstractions who never quite seem like real people, because that is exactly what I would have said about her own characters! (You can find the passage I refer to in The Romantic Manifesto.)

And I'm with you on brand names and the like being fun to encounter in novels. Even Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte have heroines who like reading "best-selling" authors of their day!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rand on some things, and strongly disagree with her on other things. The main problem with her was that her worldview was so black and white. It was literally her way, or the highway.

I doubt many people could get along with her.

Still, I'd be interested in reading that book to get my own opinion on it.

stu said...

I suppose the beauty of books on writing is that there are so many out there that you can generally ignore the ones you don't like.

JH said...

The interesting thing about Ayn Rand is how much she had in common with L. Ron Hubbard.

Marian said...

JH - Burn. Probably the only defence I can offer is that Rand seems to have sincerely believed her philosophy. I don't think that was the case for Hubbard.

stu - Absolutely. And for some reason, I enjoy reviewing controversial or even ill-advised writing guides as much as I like recommending the good ones.

Some day I'll get my hands on a copy of the PA handbook, The Published Author's Guide to Promotion...

Marian said...

Enbrethiliel - That's true, in terms of technology her novels are very much anchored in the thirties. I wonder if she could have imagined the world as it is today.

I'm pretty sure she'd hate self-publishing and POD. :)

And she's the last person who can talk about characters not seeming like real people. Hers are archetypes. I like them anyway, but there's no way they're real.

I should know. I've tried staying up for night after black-coffee-fortified night to complete a project, and I fell asleep after the second day. Maybe that's because I don't smoke, though.

Tasha - Yes, there was no room for disagreement or differing opinions. I can't help thinking that her perfect world would be a little... dull.

I also want read about her (adulterous) relationship with Nathaniel Branden. Michael Shermer wrote about that in Why People Believe Weird Things and it sounded perversely fascinating.

JH said...

Probably the only defence I can offer is that Rand seems to have sincerely believed her philosophy. I don't think that was the case for Hubbard.

I don't know how great a defense this; Hubbard started a predatory religion about space ghosts, Ayn Rand wrote hagiographies for plutocracy. In the former case, once you're ripping people off to exorcize alien ghosts it's immaterial whether you believe in it or not, the latter case is inexcusable no matter what and has had more pernicious, wisespread influence.

OTOH you have no obligation to defend Ayn Rand just because you like some of her books. Probably someone out there dug Battlefield Earth and thinks Scientology is crap.

Bonus link:

Emily said...

Well said. My jaw just about dropped at that snippet in which she declares you unfit to live on her planet. Apparently she doesn't notice how just such judgmental attitudes are what screwed over her home country in the first place. No, I would not have gotten along with Rand at all, capitalist or not. In a way, it just makes me resent her more, because I feel like she gave us all such a bad name - kind of like every liberal ought to hate Michael Moore, for making them look like such sneaks.

My security-blanket book on writing? It's called "Building Better Plots", written by some guy whose major contribution to the literary world was scriptwriting for PBS's Lambchops. But he deconstructs the art of plot and characterization with straightforward, simple precision, in a way that clarified what I'd sort-of instinctively known for a long time but never knew how to codify. A master teacher doesn't have to be a celebrity, just someone that knows the material and knows how to break it down. I'll never give up that book.