Sunday, February 23, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "The Art of Fiction" by Ayn Rand

Choosing to read either Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction or The Art of Fiction is tricky. The Art of Nonfiction relies greatly on fiction passages, notably Rand's, to illustrate process, substance, structure, and style; nevertheless, it renders many profound insights about the writer's task. (Read my review of Rand's The Art of Nonfiction in this blog.) On the other hand, writers looking for inspiration and encouragement from a consummate professional will find it in abundance in The Art of Fiction.

Many of the points I made in The Art of Nonfiction applies to this book. For instance, Rand is extremely fond of herself as an exemplar of great literature. She writes, "In regard to precision of language, I think I myself am the best writer today." She is equally unforgiving of other writers, especially Sinclair Lewis. Once again, it's fair to say that Rand's two books, published posthumously, come from lectures that she delivered in her home exclusively to friends, so she never intended to publish them.

But you can't argue with quality. Early in the book, Rand offers a simple admonishment to would-be writers: "If a writer feels that he was unable fully to express what he wanted to express, it means that he did not know clearly what he wanted to express. ... That which you know clearly you can find the words for and you will express clearly." From there, she delves into Victor Hugo, Isak Dinesen, Mickey Spillane, and Thomas Wolfe, among others, to reflect on the do's and don'ts of style. 

In The Art of Fiction, Rand takes a refreshingly pragmatic and helpful approach to many writing topics. About the writer's muse, she notes, "If you keep on storing things in your mind for your future writing and keep integrating your choice of theme to your general knowledge, allowing the scope of writing to grow and your knowledge widens, then you will always have something to say, and you will find ever better ways to say it." Her strong opinions lead to uncompromising propositions, such as "The purpose of all art is the objectification of values."

Rand unflinchingly leaves herself open to criticism from literary theorists. Those who favor character as the premier element of fiction would find arguable her position, "The most important element of a novel is plot." Also, her division of style into the two categories of content and diction might puzzle those who argue that style is the sum of syntax and diction. 

Here are other Rand gems sprinkled throughout the 176 pages with in-depth illustrations:

  • Coincidence is always bad in writing, and it is disastrous in plot writing. ... it is to be avoided at all costs.
  • Concretize your abstractions.
  • Learn to think in terms of conflict.
  • If the essential situation ... can be told in one sentence, this makes for a good plot story.
  • Your characterization will never be better than your power of observation.
  • One of the beauties of a good literary style ... is that it combines clear denotation with the skillful use of connotation.
  • The purpose of metaphors, or comparison, is epistemological.
  • A symbol should be legible; otherwise, the form is a contradiction in terms. 
Fiction writers and students will find far more in this book than they would likely get in a semester-long writing class, unless they were lucky enough to attend Rand's lectures.