The Delights of The Art of Fiction

 Posted by on 18 August 2005 at 6:56 am  Uncategorized
Aug 182005

I recently read Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction. It was a delightfully interesting book, even though I have zero interest in writing fiction and precious little time to read it. Like its excellent companion The Art of Nonfiction, many of the general discussions were philosophically meaty. Some of its advice was also surprisingly relevant to writing non-fiction. Perhaps most importantly, I expect that I’ll be able to better appreciate The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged when I read them next. (I’m planning to listen to the audiobooks in a few weeks. I hope that the slow and steady pace will help me notice elements of style that I otherwise tend to miss in my usual mad rush of excited reading.)

In short: I highly recommend the book. Go read it now, if you haven’t already!

For those of you who have already read it, you might be interested — in a morbidly curious kind of way — to read the review of the book written by Russ LaValle for The Objectivist Center. It is supremely typical of the intellectual approach at TOC: The author tosses off snide comments critical of Ayn Rand, as if whatever pops out of his noodle were worthy of consideration. In his case, that subjectivism is buttressed by a second-handed concern for agreement from supposed authorities in the world of literature. Let me offer a few examples.

In the introduction, LaValle summarizes Ayn Rand’s views about the need to convey abstractions through concretes, rather than writing in terms of floating abstractions. He notes that “a prime example of this phenomenon [of floating abstractions], Rand believes, is Thomas Wolfe, ‘who uses a vast number of words, none of them precisely’ (10).” He then adds, without any further explanation: “Many would argue that Wolfe used enough words precisely enough to make Look Homeward, Angel a modern classic. But, that said, Rand’s basic principle is unexceptionable.” So long as that book is “a modern classic,” apparently we need not consider how Thomas Wolfe actually uses language in it.

A bit later, in discussing Ayn Rand’s criticisms of the incoherent characterization in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, he first accuses her of being “out of touch with young people’s behavior” (!) and then says: “Also, she forgets that Sinclair Lewis was primarily a satirical novelist and social critic; indeed, it was this aspect of his work that was cited when, in 1930, he became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930: Arrowsmith was written as a satire of the medical profession and of its ideals.” That’s completely irrelevant to Ayn Rand’s criticisms, since even satirists ought to offer coherent portraits of their characters. Yet at least LaValle is able to sneak in that all-important mention of the Nobel Prize!

LaValle peppers the review of criticisms of similar quality. He objects to the dialogue in Ayn Rand’s novels as “stilted and overly philosophical” without bothering to cite any concrete examples. He claims that “as a historical period [Naturalism] was rather short-lived,” even though the avant-garde was hardly Ayn Rand’s only concern. He rejects Ayn Rand’s rational explanation of creativity in favor of a vague and mysterious appeal to inspiration.

Also, in typical TOC style, he complains that “the tone of her approach to [Romanticism and Naturalism] offers no room for opposing viewpoints.” I have no idea what might have inspired that complaint, as Ayn Rand’s tone was that of friendly explanation throughout the book. Perhaps LaValle would have liked her to fake meekness and uncertainty. He is also troubled that “Rand often makes harsh, sweeping, moralistic condemnations of Naturalism without supplying sufficient evidence for her own views,” since “as other have critics noted [sic: as other critics have noted], such broad over-generalizations and denunciations in Rand’s writing and speaking seem undignified and unnecessary.” I will not dignify that with a response, except to note that it’s part projection, part context-dropping. Oh, but I’m glad he was able to mention that all-important authoritative unnamed other critics!

Perhaps the most awful criticism concerns a single small compliment that Ayn Rand pays herself in the book about her precision in language:

Rand’s lack of evidence becomes particularly offputting when she feels it necessary to add a personal coda to her wholesale evaluations and generalizations. “In regard to precision of language,” she says, “I think I myself am the best writer today.” Perhaps. Again, this is a sweeping remark made without corroborating evidence. In 1958, after all, more than a few pretenders claimed the throne of linguistic precision (whatever other flaws they may have possessed): Albert Camus, Isak Dinesen, William Golding, Robert Graves, John Steinbeck, and Vladimir Nabokov, not to mention Ernest Hemingway, whose economy of language was specifically cited in his 1954 Nobel Prize for literature.

DEAR GOD, HOW COULD SHE DO SUCH A HORRIBLE THING?!? How dare she express her opinion without considering all those “pretenders [who] claimed the throne of linguistic precision”?!? In fact, Ayn Rand’s later analyses of her own use of language show an impressive mastery over every word. Oh, and don’t miss the mention of the Nobel Prize — I hope that you’re as impressed by it as I am!

In light of this review, let me suggest a new motto for The Objectivist Center: “Defending Ayn Rand as an Pretty Decent Novelist and Philosopher, Despite Our Many Distortions of Her Work.” Actually, that would be a generous interpretation of this hack of a review.

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