The Unforgivableness of Ayn Rand


I tend to think of writing I don't like as 'As boring as someone else's pornography.' In this case I think it literally true: she wrote (and philosophised) one-handed.
You give her too much credit. She wrote like the Seattle Times board would if someone was standing over them with a whip, shouting "LONGER, LONGER, MAKE THOSE SENTENCES AND PARAGRAPHS LONGER, FIVE TIMES LONGER, TEN TIMES!"
I only tried "The Fountainhead." Bad authors, like bad musicians, don't get a second chance with me.
I’ve always marveled at her staying power .. such poorly written dreck. Does anyone really need to read a book to learn to be self absorbed and an ass-hat? Seems like most people need to learn the opposite.
The issue is that she tried to base her fiction upon her philosophy.
And her philosophy was/is very limited.
So the characters in her books HAVE to be 1 dimensional and easily categorized because that is what her philosophy requires.

And the situations those characters are put in HAVE to be ridiculous because that is what her philosophy requires.

So you have a story about a great person inventing a super metal and another great person inventing a perpetual motion machine and then all the great people go live in a Utopia that they build with their super metal and super engine far away from the non-great people.

Meanwhile, in the real world, how many millionaires win the Nobel prize in any of the sciences?
The Stranger's hatred of Rand is something that has always confused me. I loved The Fountainhead, and couldn't put it down. I've read it twice. I don't agree with all of her philosophy, but I really love that book.

It's the same feeling I get whenever I have a friend read a book I love*, and they hate it. We all have our own tastes, and I believe mood and attitude of the reader has a lot to do with enjoying a book. Maybe the trick was that I read The Fountainhead before I knew I was supposed to hate it.

* This happened with The Memory of Running. Come on - how can you not love Smithy?
And after all that claptrap about the gubmint, she took her social security and medicaid when she got sick. Such integrity.

It's not a very complicated philosophy, but it presents itself as grandiose. People who desperately want to feel intellectual can cling to a simplistic world view, and feel like they're important and thoughtful, because they can read about their simplistic world view in a book.
Rand's critique of the ethics of self-sacrifice serves a useful purpose, insofar as that sentiment has been used by priests and totalitarians to subjugate people throughout history. It's good to be skeptical of anyone demanding a sacrifice from you for less than tangible purposes.

But that doesn't mean that all collectivist impulses are necessarily evil.

Both her acolytes and detractors would do well to ignore her assertion that one must accept her philosophy in total, or reject all of it. There are good ideas in there. But terrible ones, too.

And yeah, her prose reads like a jackhammer on a kettle drum.
Today, I was going to pick up one of her novels to see what the hubbub is all about. You and Fnarf have deterred me from feeling the need.

There’s too much more to read to suffer through something like that on a hot summer day.
@ 6, when I attempted to read The Fountainhead I had two problems that had nothing to do with the novel's philosophy. The characters were both unsympathetic and boring. I can forgive one if the other is present, but together they're insurmountable.
Teenagers are inherently selfish, so Rand's writing would appeal to some in that demographic. Of course, most teenagers outgrow that completely selfish stage and mature into less selfish adults. But there is that small group of fans who absorb what she says as if the words were written on a ancient scroll, and that's it. They enter adult life stuck in that selfish phase they will never really grow out of now.
Well I can only say that I enjoyed* "We The Living"...though it's been a long time since I read it. I do remember gasping for life by the time I finished and I don't think I could read it again.

*As much as one can enjoy such a brutal story.
I was kind of into Ayn Rand as a senior in high school; then I went to City Lights bookstore during the summer before college; they had her books shelved in the "Science Fiction" section; that completely weaned me.
Haven't read it in years, but I really enjoyed We The Living back when I was in college. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were over the top and bombastic, with characters so one dimensional as to be absurd, but I enjoyed both books. Even the utterly retarded ending of AS; am I correctly remembering John Galt literally swing in on a rope to save the heroine?

Either way, get the fuck over it. Everybody is allowed to enjoy badly written books. I'm sure you guys have a few stinkers that you hold close to your hearts.
The trick to getting through "the Fountainhead" is to skip through any of the forty page speeches and just concentrate on the rapes/betrayals/explosions. I found Howard Roark to be a real bore, but Dominique Francon and Ellsworth Toohey were sufficiently sociopathic enough to make it interesting enough to complete.

As for "Atlas Shrugged", I really tried with that one, because I love trains, but it was just too stupid. For a "contemporary" novel of 1957, it was still stuck in the 1930's, and the characters were just cartoons. Plus, I have no stomach for mass murder scenes, and the train wreck was basically violence porn.

I bought "Atlas Shrugged" secondhand in paperback, because I had a feeling it would make me cross, and I didn't want to break anything when I threw it across the room, which I did a few times before finally putting it aside.
Ayn Rand was a clinically diagnosable narcissist and "objectivism" is both an expression and a defense of her pathology. Even if she had been a masterful writer, her message would still have been toxic.
Everyone considers the 2-dimensional characters to be a flaw, but I felt they really made the stories. I want to believe there's a Howard Roark out there, stepping past the repetative building designs and finding beauty that comes from function. Yes, he's like an architect superhero. But that's a feature, not a bug.
Reading Atlas Shrugged made my stay in jail sufficiently horrible that I vowed never to return. Thanks Ann!
she could have fit the fountain head into 35 pages -- a senior paper. The self is a pretty boring topic especially in 800 to 1000 pages.
I read The Fountainhead in college because I intended to major in architecture (didn't end up happening), and it was about an architect!

And man, was it long, and rapey, and boring, and selfish. But I sort of enjoyed the architecture theme.

Also, re Ayn Rand and her "philosophy", what @18 said.
I know tastes differ, but I found her prose too tedious to even get to the part where I hated her characters and disagreed with her philosophy.
Apologies for the cut and paste of this Alternet article, but Rand basing her protagonists on a serial killer just creeps me out.

"as Ayn Rand was working out her philosophy, she became enthralled by a real-life American serial killer, William Edward Hickman, whose gruesome, sadistic dismemberment of 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation."

"What did Rand admire so much about Hickman? His sociopathic qualities: "Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should," she wrote, gushing that Hickman had "no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"…
"Everyone considers the 2-dimensional characters to be a flaw,but I felt they really made the stories."

That is because they are in anything more advanced than children's books.
And Rand's characters aren't even 2 dimensional. They're 1 dimensional.

"I want to believe there's a Howard Roark out there, stepping past the repetative building designs and finding beauty that comes from function."

Why just "want to believe"?
There are thousands of examples of buildings just like that all around the world. You can find them online.
And, again, that's the problem with her writing.
Her philosophy is so limited that her 1 dimensional characters have to be put in ridiculous situations to make her point.

Her architect hero cannot just design beautiful buildings for people to live or work in.
He has to be recognized as a genius by the establishment and his opponents have to be discredited (and he has to get the girl as well).
So the story is about his quest for fame.
Because he deserves it.
Because he is the best architect there is.
You have to remember, she experienced the "cultural revolution" of the Bolsheviks as a young adult .…

Imagine any of you, suddenly being subject to having your writing and creative arts "serve the state" by a centralized government.

Most artists conceive that in a Communist state they would somehow be elevated by power brokers who would "see" the beauty that the system had missed. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact you would be subject to the same relentless rating system and fickle favoritism, only being not well liked could mean a jail cell or execution.

"Imagine a novel written collectively by the Seattle Times editorial board. That's Rand." Love it.
The Fountainhead is more about art than Rand's silly political philosophies. The lesson of bouncing back after failure and taking criticism in stride is what I got out of the book, though the rigid lack of compromise doesn't shake out in the real world. Ignoring the tirades on government and the poor, as Catalina suggested, is the only way to get through it. But even then you'll do a lot of eye rolling and reminding yourself that, well, English was Rand's second language.
@5, it is possible to write a good book about a bad philosophy; check out Louis-Ferdinand Celine, for instance. What Rand does, even if you dig her philosophy, is the opposite: even if you agree with her 100%, the writing is just extremely bad. She is a maladroit handler of English, and as Catalina points out, is addicted to the forty-page speech. Where a human would say "excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom; I'll be right back", Roark has to make an hour long speech. For EVERYTHING.

The fact that her philosophy is bunkum is a separate question.
I loved The Fountainhead. It was different than all the other books I had read at the time. A novel novel, if you will. I agree that it had some wordy parts though.

I read Atlas Shrugged several years later. It was ok but I didn't love it as much. Definitely had too many too-long parts. Plus, it's basically the same plot as The Fountainhead, only with multiple protagonists instead of just one.

Also, the ending to The Fountainhead was great, whereas the ending to Atlas Shrugged was a fizzle.
I read the Fountainhead and learned 2 things:

1. Ayn Rand has never spoken to an architect.
2. Ayn Rand thought rape was really hot.

Fuck her and fuck people who think Objectivism has any standing as "philosophy" - Greenspan, Ryan, etc. Those people have never read actual philosophy.
I read Atlas Shrugged several years ago: one should always know their enemy right? I thought about committing suicide shortly afterwards.
Fnarf dear, that speech would begin "Since the dawn of time, mankind has faced the inevitable question of elimination of bodily waste and the most expedient way to deal with it..." and then go through a history of bathroom usage and how the individual has been held back by public health concerns.
@ 30, if only reminding yourself that it was her second language could help. French was Beckett's second language but that didn't hinder him. Rand would have been a hack in Russian.
Bad writing stinks, but to call it "unforgivable" really seems a bit much. The way Ayn Rand validates narcissistic self-flattering sociopaths all over the world by insisting that all good things proceed from a tiny cadre of Supermen, and everyone else is lower than dirt, is what I find unforgivable. And it's unforgivable because it's not true and it encourages all kinds of prosperity-killing misconduct. Real prosperity proceeds from the empowerment of the masses, and entrepreneurs are just one of many necessary kinds of people.
Rand had to couch her philosophy in works of fiction because it can't stand on its own as philosophy. Her claim to have discovered the one and only possible view of reality is easily dismantled in a rational debate, so instead she wrote novels that describe a perfect, unassailable school of philosophy called Objectivism -- look, the indisputable truth of its tenets is right there in the name! -- and then constructed the world of the novels in such a way as to make this dime-store philosophy appear to make sense (with the added consequence of making those novels incredibly tedious reads.) If her books prove the validity of Objectivism then Star Wars proves the existence of the Force.

Her most believable fictional character is that of Ayn Rand, Genius Iconoclast Philosopher. It's the only character she ever wrote that fooled a reader into thinking it might be based on a real person.
@4 "Does anyone really need to read a book to learn to be self absorbed and an ass-hat?" They already are self absorbed ass-hats. They just read the book to make them feel better about themselves.
@27, Vladimir Nabokov lived through the Bolsheviks too, and it didn't cause him to develop the world's stupidest philosophy or churn out 50,000 pages of turgid drivel in its service.
@ 38, "If her books prove the validity of Objectivism then Star Wars proves the existence of the Force."

A + + +
@26 "So the story is about his quest for fame." I think you're misremembering the book. It was about being uncompromising in your vision of beauty. Roark didn't care about fame, he cared about buildings. People and forces stood in his way, and he overcame them. It's not a terribly complex plot, but it is a beautiful idea and made a very good story*.

"I think you're misremembering the book. It was about being uncompromising in your vision of beauty."

Roark could have pursued beauty without seeking fame.

"Roark didn't care about fame, he cared about buildings."

You do realize that you are arguing about a book by Ayn Rand, right?
He COULD have designed buildings without seeking fame.
But he did not do that.
He was the best architect in the world and he kept pursuing fame (and the destruction of his opponents) throughout the book.
It's a common theme in her work.
It isn't enough to be the best.
The protagonists have to be recognized as being the best.

She would never have written a book about a great artist who struggled in obscurity while creating beautiful paintings that are only appreciated after his death.

Nor would she have written a book where the protagonist is the second best architect in the world.
Particularly where the best architect favored "collectivism" or whatever.
Rand tried to write Novels of Ideas. They have a long, respectable history. Unfortunately, her ideas were crap.

I guess you could say that her books succeed, in that they illustrate her philosophy so well that all its flaws are visible. They boil down to this: Rand really had no idea how human beings work. If the purpose of philosophy is to help people learn how to live, you really need to understand people.

The Randian worldview is perfect for a teenager, as many commenters have noted. It's grounded in feelings of persecution, and being misunderstood. Each criticism, each bit of suffering -- really, any encounter with the real world -- just shows your "philosophy" is correct. The feeling of martyrdom is not a side-effect, it's a central proof.
@40, Let's not forget that Nabokov's father was assassinated while in exile (shielding a political rival from damage, to boot), his family lost all of its holdings (the Nabokovs were also minor nobility) in the Bolshevik Revolution, and his brother killed by the Nazis for homosexuality. So, if anyone had the right to play the "life dealt me a horrible hand, so I'll just become a raging asshole" card, it was Nabokov.

So, as usual, Bailo's point is totally off-base and non-nonsensical.
@45 Should be "nonsensical." Damn auto correct.
@27 I have definitely seen it suggested that objectivism is simply communism in reverse. This is interesting from a what-made-Ayn-tick psychological standpoint and also might explain why her ideas resonate so strongly with American anti-communists.

It doesn't make her ideas any more valid or the books any better written. However, this --

Most artists conceive that in a Communist state they would somehow be elevated by power brokers who would "see" the beauty that the system had missed

Are you suggesting that all artists are philosophical communists who support the idea of a Soviet-style collectivist state? Or just artists who dislike Rand?
The troublesome thing how much Rand's ideas are accepted in mainstream America, even by those who have never heard of her -- that is to say her ideas about money and the markets, not atheism!

@9 @16 -- agreed, she had some good points, and a balance of self-interest and self-sacrifice are better than an ideology which requires either extreme.

Remember she lived in an era where soviet communism was arguing for a complete elimination of individual interest for the good of the state. Ironic that the final henchmen of the KGB, like Putin, were so completely out for their own gain and once the pretense ended, they turned out to be the ultimate embodiment of individuals pursuing Rand's ideas of self-interest and money with no concern for the common good. Russia is not a pleasant place to live today from what I've read, and American is becoming less pleasant the more the Randublicans take over.


"And after all that claptrap about the gubmint, she took her social security and medicaid when she got sick. Such integrity."

This ignorant statement shows why it is futile to argue with people who can't understand.

They took her money so she takes it back. Totally rational and in line with her philosophy. It doesn't mean she believed in welfare. She had no choice but to participate, pay taxes. She lived at a Time when her earnings were taxed at 90%. Give her that money and she would gladly not take a dime from the government. A gov. That thought (thinks) that her(your) efforts should go to the state to decide who and what it is good for.