This is what happened: I am working on fiction, at the moment, and because of that I am trying to read only fiction, because that sometimes helps. Other times, not so much. But you see what I mean.
What got me started thinking about rereading The Fountainhead was something unrelated to either Rand or the fiction I’m working on that reminded me of a Rand character named Ellsworth Toohey.
This particular Rand character is a villain, which you can sort of tell by the name. And I’ve always thought that no matter what else Rand did right or wrong, she was pitch-perfect in her villains, and Toohey is a type almost everybody has met somewhere along the line. In The Fountainhead he is a newspaper journalist. These days he would almost certainly be an academic. He’s vile virtually everywhere he’s found, and if you’ve ever met one, you’ll remember.
But the truth is that even though The Fountainhead is a novel, I almost never think of Rand as a writer of fiction. I got through the novels and on to the nonfiction early enough, and from then on I tended to think of Rand as a writer on ideas. By the end of her life, she thought of herself as a philosopher. Her critics didn’t like to accord her the title, but I think she had a point. I don’t see what else you would call what she did.
I was thinking of Rand at all because there are dozens of people on my FB friends list who post the most ridiculous, cartoony nonsense about “Randism,” which I sometimes try to counter, and which I mostly just ignore. It’s obvious that most of these people have never read Rand, and not only because they’d know better if they had. You’d be amazed how many of them post absolutely spot on Rand sentiments (stand by your own values and beliefs and don’t be influenced by the crowd!) that they just don’t know are core Rand ideas.
But whatever got me started thinking about this, what I want to take about here are not Rand’s ideas, but her practice as a writer of fiction. She did, after all, write two of the best selling novels in the history of US publishing, and those novels are still selling in six figures today. I don’t think there are that many people out there who would be willing to buy novels that don’t work as novels just to get at the ideas.
And, I have to admit up front, on some levels Rand’s novels work very well as novels. Her plots are intricate, innovative and coherent. And, as I said once before on this blog, the woman is to narrative drive what Sherman was to marching through Georgia.
But although the plots are outstanding and the portraits of the villains are nearly perfect, I never liked Rand as a writer of fiction because I never liked her heroes and heroines.
Like John Milton, whose only compelling character in Paradise Lost is Satan, all the talent Rand had seemed to desert her when it came to writing good guys. I was interested in what happened to Howard Roark and Hank Reardon because I was conceptually interested in the positions Rand put them in. Otherwise, I found them all a little tiresome and annoying.
The copy of The Fountainhead I had at home to read was the 25th anniversary edition, and that one started with a special forward by the author, explaining what she had been tying to do with the novel.
That was a help, because it gave me information I hadn’t had before. First and foremost, it told me that Rand’s purpose in writing fiction was to portray the idea kind of human being, and that she was (deliberately) working in the tradition of Romanticism, and not of naturalism.
If those words make no sense to you, my best guess is that you’ve probably read naturalism most of your fiction-reading life, since naturalism has been the primary mode for fiction for over a hundred years. Every mystery novel I can think of is an example of naturalism. So is most science fiction. So are Dickens, Shaw and Heminway.
There’s a fair amount of fantasy that could be called Romantic in the literary sense–Lord of the Rings is in many aspects. Interestingly, most Romance novels are not examples of Romanticism in the literary sense, especially not the ones set present day.
If you read a Romantic novel in school, it was probably Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.
And no, Romantic in the literary sense has nothing to do with love stories.
I tend to find Romantic (in the literary sense) novels less congenial than I do naturalistic novels. That’s not a value judgment but a statement of taste. I find them less congenial in the same sense I find pork chops less congenial than turkey breasts.
But reading through Rand’s introduction made it possible for me to hone in on some particulars, and here they are.
1) I have nothing against works of fiction (or nonfiction) that try to portray ideal human beings, I just tend to define “ideal” differently than Rand does. Both Apollo 13 and Band of Brothers each portray at least one ideal human being and I find both of those not only more believable than Rand’s heroes, but more ideal.
I am not talking, here, about the silly notions of what Rand stood for (she wants people to be selfish! she hates the poor!) that some people substitute for what she actually said. Both Dick Winters and Jim Lovell could easily be Rand heroes on all the points that mattered to her: having the courage of their convictions; taking responsibility for themselves and their circumstances; having work ethics out the wazoo; basing their decisions on their own ideas, desires, and beliefs and not on whether or not other people will like them.
There’s a difference in tone, though, and the tone really matters to me.
And part of that is due to the fact that I’m an American.
And part of my problem with Rand as a novelist is that Rand was not.
2) Since all of Rand’s writing is in English and all of it was written here, she’s an “American writer.”
But she isn’t, really.
In tone, style, intellectual orientation and a whole lot of other ways, Rand was and is a Russian writer.
This comes out in two ways in particular.
First, all that talking about ideas in the middle of the novel. Tolstoy did it. Dostoyevski did it. Gorki did it. Turgenev did it. Russian novels are novels of ideas.
And if you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend a Woody Allen movie called Love and Death, in which he sends up the form hilariously.
All writers are strongly affected by the things they read as children and adolescents, and I think that what we have in Rand’s novels is Rand trying to replicate what she admired in the first novels she did admire. In a similar way, hardboiled detective writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Chandler and fantasy writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Tolkein. I keep trying to channel Hemingway, but I’m not very good at it.
But there is a second way in which Rand is more like a Russian novelist than an American one, and that is in her approach to humor.
It is not only that she has no sense of humor (which she doesn’t), but that she is inherently suspicious of humor. Like Dostoyevski and Tolstoy before her, she seems incapable of imaging that humor could ever be anything but belittling and antagonistic. Like all the classic Russian writers, and like Solzhenitsyn as well, humor is never anything but a weapon.
I think this is why I’ve always found Rand’s nonfiction more easy to read than her fiction. I don’t need funny in an essay about aesthetics or the foundational principles of moral behavior.
But I do prefer funny in books, even in very dark books. And fiction without it feels cramped and rigid to me.
This is, I suppose, pretty much the way I feel about life. A day without something to laugh at is not a pleasant day. A day when I am too pressed down by things to worry about to be able to laugh when I’m given the chance is worse.
In the end, I think Rand’s focus was much more on her ideas than on fiction as a form. And if somebody asks me what they should read of Rand’s, I always recommend either the strictly nonfictional, or the excerpts of those long philosophical tracts from the novels that might as well have been nonfiction.
Even so–the villains are perfect. And everybody should know them, because they help to recognize the real thing in real life.
And I have finished the reread and gone back to detective novels.
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