On Ayn Rand’s Style of Writing

 Posted by on 12 November 2012 at 10:00 am  Ayn Rand, Literature, Objectivism
Nov 122012

A while back, someone asked me about a blog post on Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged by Aaron Ross Powell — Atlas Shrugged: Initial Impressions. The post begins:

Sans its message, sans its historical significance, sans its ability to turn young people into libertarians, the first thing one picks up on when starting Atlas Shrugged is the poverty of the prose. Ayn Rand, no matter her or her followers’ opinion otherwise, just isn’t a very good writer. The language is plodding, non-lyrical, and often often awkward. For example, in one scene she writes, “He stood slouching against the bar.” To my knowledge, one stands against a bar or one slouches against a bar-but one does not stand slouching.

The only other bit of substance is the following:

What else comes to mind, a mere 200 pages into this monstrous novel? Well, I can’t imagine wanting to hang out with any of these people. Her good guys are, without exception, awful human beings. They display no compassion and evidence no empathy. A world filled with such super men would be a terrible place, indeed. Her bad guys, on the other hand-her collectivists and leftists and academics-are ugly little toads who snivel and beg from the arch-capitalists we’re all supposed to look up to when we aren’t looking for an excuse to leave. Objectivism, at least as presented in this seminal text, affords no nuance.

So, what did I say about that criticism of Atlas Shrugged to my correspondent? Let’s see:

That post was rather offensive, but very typical of some libertarians, unfortunately. It stuck me as little more than a series of snide, cutting remarks without any real substance.

Here’s my view: Ayn Rand’s style is definitely different from standard American novelists, as well as from classic English literature. It has much more in common with the stronger style of the Russian and French classics that Ayn Rand read and loved as a child and young woman. But even relatively well-educated Americans are less familiar with those, if familiar at all, so her style can seem a bit foreign. However, I cannot dislike it.

Moreover, many of the standard charges made — including in that post — are just strange. About the “slouching,” the actual sentence is “Bertram Scudder stood slouched against the bar.” That’s perfectly sensible: a person can slouch while sitting or standing, and in doing so the person might be leaning against a bar. So her sentence seems like a precise and economical description to me.

Moreover, contrary to the blogger, Ayn Rand’s characters are filled with nuance. Francisco seems to be a worthless playboy, yet also so much like his old self; Hank Rearden struggles with his view of sex as depraved; Dagny knows that she is helping the looters yet she will not join the strike; Dr. Stadler betrays his values time and again, with ever-worse results; the “wet nurse” slowly rejects all that he has been taught; Cherryl Taggart sees Jim clearly for what he really is after much painful struggle. Even the villains grow worse over the course of the novel: they work out the logic of their premises.

Oh, and notice the implicit moral standard in the post: Ayn Rand’s good guys aren’t good because “they display no compassion and evidence no empathy.” But that’s exactly part of Ayn Rand’s point: Jim Taggart is plenty empathetic: he’s definitely tuned in to people’s emotions. Yet he’s still downright evil due to his systematic refusal to think. In contrast, Dagny, the woman supposedly without feeling, displays profound depths of emotions. She loves her work passionately. She is beloved by her employees because she is just to them. In fact, due to that concern for justice, she displays the utmost kindness toward Cherryl in her desperate flight from Jim’s evil. Emotion is not what makes a person moral or not; it’s not a primary but an effect of a person’s basic adherence to facts or not.

If you’re interested in studying Atlas Shrugged in greater detail, check out my Explore Atlas Shrugged series of podcasts and discussion questions. (Yes, I have a major update of that site to do, but I make no promises as to when that will happen!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/sixofone88 Matthew Moore

    Excellent reply. I especially liked your observation about her style being more similar to French and Russian writers. I hadn’t explicitly made that connection before, but now I can see it.

  • Steve D

    ‘So her sentence seems like a precise and economical description to me.’

    I am not sure I completely agree that precision was her main concern here. Stand and slouched used together are something of a metaphor; they impart a homey image in my mind that neither word by itself would.

    In general Rand uses a lot of words but they all seem to have a purpose. She is definitely not concise, so it you are unused to it, I can see how it might become difficult to get through. However, when I read it for the first time, I was just caught up the story; didn’t really notice the style at all and hardly even the philosophy until later in the book.

    ‘Her good guys are, without exception, awful human beings.’

    I hear this objection or variations of it all the time, like stiff, mean spirited or lacking in empathy. However, it never even occurred to me. Where does it come from? Simply because of her good guys show no empathy for the bad guys or is there some other deeper reason? There is the possibility that the ‘stiff’ aspects of their characters resonate with the readers but the ‘empathic’ aspects for some reason do not or are quickly forgotten. It may possibly be that her initial descriptions of them solidify in the readers mind, driving out all the ‘nice’ things they do later.

    On the other hand, Dagny Taggart came across to me as a very nice person from the get go.

    ‘Objectivism, at least as presented in this seminal text, affords no nuance.’

    One of the difficulties with writing is determining how nuanced to be. Some readers will look for it but a lot of readers will completely miss things which seem obvious. If you are too nuanced, everyone will miss it and then accuse you of having no nuance. On the other hand, if you are too obvious it takes a lot of the challenge and interest away from the reader.

  • JP

    This. THIS is the kind of work I wish you would do more often Diana. When I mentioned the change in your blog over the last year, it occurred to me that I haven’t spent much time listening to your recorded shows. My reason is that I prefer, if I am not a participant in a philosophical discussion, to simply read it rather than listen to it. So I like your blog more when you have more written pieces like this one. Well, I could listen to someone like Morgan Freeman talking philosophy, or maybe the voice actor for Batman in the animated series, but most people I really can’t get into it.

    • https://philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

      For a while, I wasn’t doing much writing for the blog, but that’s changed in the last few months. I’m posting substantive posts on a pretty regular basis now. What I’m not doing is writing much on explicitly Objectivist topics, as in this post.

      The WTFuffles — and deafening silence in response to that among the vast majority of Objectivist leaders and intellectuals — extinguished my desire to promote Objectivism in the culture. At this point, I don’t wish to associate with or promote the nasty mixture of pragmatism, cultism, pessimism, and cowardice that characterizes far too much of (what remains of) the Objectivist movement. (I’m still friends with lots of awesome Objectivists, of course.)

      At this point, I’m not interested in writing for an audience primarily of Objectivists and fellow travelers, as I used to do. Instead, I want to promote good ideas — many of which are Objectivist, of course — to a broader audience. That’s a bigger challenge for me — and hence, more interesting. It does far more good for the culture too.

      In any case, I understand the preference to read rather than listen. I’m hoping to start translating more of my show notes from their pigeon English into blog posts — albeit perhaps only for contributors. But I have about 1000 other things on my plate right now, including getting my dissertation copyedited and published. So I’m not making any promises as to when that might happen.

      • JP

        I actually enjoy your work on topics not specifically geared towards Objectivists (film criticism might be a good thing to consider, for example), provided that you approach them from your normal philosophical perspective.

        My only real complaint about your choice of topics is that where politics are concerned, you seem to pick what I consider to be “optional” issues rather than essential ones. Your decision, obviously, but I personally can enjoy a blog more when I can agree with the author’s value priority rankings.

  • James

    It’s rather striking that the person critiquing Rand’s work can’t even be bothered to quote the sentence. It’s not like the book is hard to find, and if the line left that much of an impression it should be worth it to present the actual text. It indicates incredibly sloppy thinking. It also baffles me that someone could say something so extraordinarily stupid. Language isn’t intended to be interpreted word-for-word–that’s why it’s so much fun to type a sentence into Babblefish and start translating it. It’s meant to be taken as phrases, particularly in English where idioms are almost omnipresent. And in a novel there’s this little thing called “literary license”, which means you can muck up the language as much as you want as long as you get the point across. This is the kind of analysis that I got fed up with back in high school.

    Also, the idea that her characters show no compassion and no empathy can only be held by someone who didn’t read the book, or who paid so little attention that it amounts to the same thing (the lack of ability to accurately quote the book indicates the latter). The entire book is about a guy trying to save others from being tortured. Francisco doesn’t sleep for three days to find Dagney. I’ve done that–it’s not something you do lightly, or something that you do without a deep passion. For most of the book Rearden goes out of his way to empathize with his family, well past the point of reasonable care for a loved one. The whole thing between Dagney and Sheril, Hank’s attempts to protect Dagney, Dagney’s love for music, Rearden’s chain bracelet–examples of compassion abound in the book. It’s astounding that anyone can miss that.

    But it illustrates a problem I’ve encountered when discussing Rand’s works: her critics don’t feel it necessary to back up anything they say, or if they do it’s extremely shoddy. They feel permitted to make outrageous claims without any support, even when they contradict the work itself. On the other hand, her defenders are expected to present precise arguments, perfect quotes, etc. It’s a double-standard that’s specifically designed to make Rand look bad. It’s an attempt to manipulate the nature of the discussion itself such that Rand has no chance–the whole point is to put Rand’s fans on the defensive, and to do a Gish gallop to make us seem like uneducated morons (at least, in my experience).

  • advancedatheist

    Ironically the how-to books on novel-writing I’ve read recommend using a plain English vocabulary and straight-to-the-point narration. And consider that few people who learn English as a second language after the organic window for easy language learning closes at adolescence would attempt to write novels in it.

  • DeCaelo

    I’ve always found Ayn Rand’s writing style to be quite lovely. I understood that many people disliked her philosophy, usually to a downright ignorant extent, but I never realized that so many people disliked the actual style of her writing. The idea that her characters have no feeling at all is dreadfully daft as well. They do have depth, but it’s nuanced and within an archetypal template. Perhaps people prefer to be slapped in the face with character development, I don’t know. All I really know is that it has become the trend to hate Ayn Rand — more so than I ever knew. It’s like people hear her philosophy is anti-liberal, anti-poor, etc and they decide to hate all of her work before even giving it a chance. It’s peer pressure on a larger scale. I’m just glad I could actually read the books I have by myself and away from the snide remarks of other people. I just wanted to find writers with styles similar to Ayn Rand’s and I was instead bombarded with pages upon pages of half baked literary critics and journalists throwing their two cents at me. Very mean and fairly unfounded two cents at that! *sigh* Well, I’m glad I found this page at least. It’s the first valid response I’ve seen all night. Thank you for that.

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