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Hearing Ayn Rand’s Deep Insights into the Craft of Fiction

Original recordings of Rand’s 1958 course on fiction writing, presented to invited guests in her living room, are now available on ARI Campus.

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Can you imagine being invited into Ayn Rand’s living room to hear the author of Atlas Shrugged discuss the art of fiction with a select few guests? That opportunity is yours, for free, on ARI Campus, where audio recordings of those sessions are now available.

The year was 1958, and the place was Rand’s New York City apartment. Her guests included aspiring authors who wanted to learn the craft of fiction writing,as well as readers who sought a deeper appreciation of the art form. Leonard Peikoff, who was among the latter group, wrote in his introduction to The Art of Fiction, an edited book version of the lectures: “We were not content to grasp a book as a finished whole; we wanted to hear AR analyze the pleasures (or misery) a book evoked, and explain by what means its effects had been achieved.”

Whereas the book, edited by Tore Boeckmann, captures essential material from Rand’s course in edited and reorganized form, the original recordings offer listeners the experience of hearing the sessions “live” and in person.

You may have experienced Rand’s style of public speaking by listening to her lectures or watching her television appearances, but it is rare to hear her in a less formal setting. The Art of Fiction course allows listeners to experience Ayn Rand the teacher, speaking extemporaneously and engaging with questions and remarks from her students. At times, she poses questions to the audience and comments on their responses. Parts of the lectures on style take the form of discussions about selected passages from different authors.

The course is extensive and wide-ranging, including discussions of plot, theme and characterization, and in-depth stylistic analyses of excerpts from numerous authors. The twelve recorded sessions, which total more than twenty-two hours, include much material not in the book version. For instance, in discussing schools of literature in the second lecture, Rand explains why most modern Romantic stories are “costume dramas” that take place in “some reality that is not the present — another age, another set of circumstances, almost another dimension” instead of the present-day world. The reason, she argues, lies in the mind-body split that most people accept, preventing authors from combining important values with “the reality of the present.”

In her discussion of plot structure, Rand explores an example that’s not in the book. She describes a television show about an air traffic controller who must teach a young boy to land an airplane after his father, the pilot, loses consciousness. She explains how this story’s dramatization of free will makes it “a very simple half-hour example of what makes a good Romantic plot story.” The course also contains longer discussions of examples that are presented in the book, including The Fountainhead, Arrowsmith and Gone With the Wind.

A discussion with participants in the tenth lecture exemplifies Rand’s conversational style of instruction. Following Rand’s analysis of a description from Atlas Shrugged of a prairie sunset witnessed by the character Dagny Taggart, one participant asks whether this is really a description of nature, as Rand said it was, or a description of Dagny’s mood through her reactions to seeing the sunset. Rand responds by asking, “Do you have any idea apart from her of what that evening looked like?” The questioner responds affirmatively, but says that this raises a broader question: “Is it part of the Romantic method to see nature mainly in terms of the mood of the characters one is dealing with?”

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Rand replies that the sunset description is written from Dagny’s viewpoint without projecting her emotions into it. But after another participant asks a related question, Rand adds: “As a general rule, would there be anything in the principles of the Romantic school of writing that would make it necessary to describe nature only as a complement to man? No, as a general rule, that could not be claimed. Now the second part of the question, is it true that I do it that way? Yes.” This leads into a discussion of Rand’s use of nature only as a background for man.

For fiction lovers, aspiring writers and fans of Ayn Rand, the Art of Fiction audio course offers a wealth of insight into how literary works are written and how to deepen one’s enjoyment of them. To enroll, follow this link. The course is also available on our YouTube channel with new videos being added on an ongoing basis.

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Sam Weaver

Sam Weaver, BA in English, is an associate fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and a recipient of the Conceptual Education Fellowship.

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