The Art of Fiction
A Guide for Writers and Readers
by Ayn Rand

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

edited by Tore Boeckmann
introduction by Leonard Peikoff

Plume (Penguin Books): New York, 2000
180 pages August 2008

The why of Ayn Rand's style

The Art of Fiction is a rare kind of book. Not many major writers have given their readers an analysis of why they do what they do, in creating their works. The book is a transcript of lectures, as stated in the introduction by Leonard Peikoff (who was in attendance):

This book is an edited version of an informal course of lectures given by Ayn Rand in her own living room in 1958. It was the year after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, and AR was at the peak of her powers as a novelist.

She gave the course, by "popular demand," to some twenty or so friends and acquaintances. She spoke extemporaneously, with only a few written notes naming the topics she wished to cover. Including questions and discussion, each of the twelve sessions lasted about four hours.

The tape recordings, sold for many years as a tape lecture course, have been edited by Tore Boeckmann as follows:

Given the extemporaneous nature of Ayn Rand's lectures, the transcript of her tape recordings had to be edited before publication. My editing was aimed at giving the material the economy, smoothness, and precision proper to written prose; it consisted primarily of cutting, reorganizing, and line editing.

This no doubt is a reasonable procedure for shaping The Art of Fiction lectures into a book for the general reader, although scholars studying Ayn Rand might wish for her actual spoken words in print, with the ideas and associations grouped and presented as they occurred to her.

I am not the only one who finds it a bit ironic that a series of lectures so heavily concerned with choice and style was posthumously revised as stated above.

The Romantic-Realist analysis

Is The Art of Fiction interesting and useful to writers and readers? And to reading other works than Rand's, and to writing that is not imitative of her style? I think so. Certainly one previously should have read both of Ayn Rand's major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and ideally be quite familiar with them: Rand quotes and discusses a number of passages from deep within her novels, including necessarily a number of plot spoilers.

Briefly, Rand divides novelists' approach to literature as Romantic or Naturalist; she is a Romantic (or Romantic Realist). She talks helpfully about how these concepts apply to theme, plot, characterization, and dialogue. A running concern is with abstract presentations versus concrete ones, and the critical importance of choosing what to present versus cataloguing everything in sight and the kitchen sink too. Clarity, like dramatic force, is not accidental.

She speaks strongly for internal consistency:

I want to emphasize that a character can have enormous conflicts and contradictions — but then these have to be consistent. You must select his actions so that the reader grasps: "This is what's the trouble with this character." For instance, there are contradictions in Gail Wynand's actions throughout The Fountainhead, but these contradictions are integrated to their ultimate root. If a character has contradictory premises, to say "I understand him" means: "I understand the conflict behind his actions."
Depicting love, nature, & New York City

The least attractive aspect of The Art of Fiction is Rand's penchant for speaking ex cathedra, sometimes stating rules and principles as Platonic ideal truths. You may accept these as given, or try to work them out on your own, or put up with them.

What is most entertaining here, and perhaps most educational for both writers and readers, is Rand's literary analyses and comparisons. She contrasts depictions of love from Atlas Shrugged with examples from Victor Hugo, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis, Kathleen Winsor, and James Gould Cozzens. Other sets contrast depictions of nature and of New York City in Atlas Shrugged with examples from Isak Dinesen, Mickey Spillane, Thomas Wolfe, and Sinclair Lewis.

Rand engages with Sinclair Lewis in detail at a number of junctures throughout the lectures, giving him I think more overall credit than he deserves. On the other hand I think she undervalues both Shakespeare and Tolstoy, whom she does not discuss in any detail.

If you're interested in how and why Ayn Rand as a writer does what she does in her novels, read The Art of Fiction. If you apply her principles, as illustrated in the contrasts above, to other writers, you may find yourself reading with sharper eyes. As for writing styles, advice that improves our clarity of presentation is always to be welcomed.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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