A recurring objection to Ayn Rand the fiction writer is that hers are propaganda novels. We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are books with the semblance of a story, whose real purpose is to hit the reader over the head with her philosophy. This viewpoint was again expressed by Sarah Skwire in 2016 over at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and I took that opportunity to respond.
Critics who raise this objection create an interesting puzzle for themselves, which I’ve never seen them solve. If Rand’s novels were like Soviet propaganda films, the only audience they would gain is an audience forced to attend. But Rand’s novels continue to be purchased and read by hundreds of thousands of individuals each year. (Judging from an event that I did at the Cato Institute in 2017 — unfortunately distasteful in its intellectual superficiality — Skwire has still not learned this lesson.)
To be sure, Rand’s novels are philosophical and intellectual, but this does not make them plot-less or story-less propaganda pieces. On the contrary, their stories are gripping and dramatic. As in so many other areas of her thought, Rand here is asking us to rethink our categories and to look afresh at the possibilities offered by literature.
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Is Ayn Rand a Writer of Didactic Fiction?
This is a question that Ayn Rand was asked in different ways throughout her life, often as a kind of veiled criticism, the implication being that Rand is not really an artist or a dramatist, but a propagandist. It’s raised again by Sarah Skwire over at the Foundation for Economic Education. It’s a question that Rand eventually grew tired of, not because she couldn’t answer it, but because it usually meant that those asking the question were operating with faulty concepts and categories, clouding their ability to think. Nevertheless, it is an interesting question and it is illuminating to see why Rand found the question itself suspect.
Indeed, one of the values of studying philosophy generally, and Rand’s philosophy in particular, is that it helps us examine and challenge our basic categories and concepts. These categories and concepts are the tools we use to think. The power, accuracy and creativity of our thinking depend on the quality of our tools. Rand understood this fact particularly well, which I think is one reason she introduced her epistemology (her philosophical account of the nature and means of human knowledge) by presenting her new theory of concepts. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is a theoretical work, but it also contains practical advice about how to assess when a concept we are using is defective and thereby distorting our thinking, and how to form better concepts.
Rand maintained that this kind of philosophical work, rethinking our fundamental categories and concepts, is especially needed in regard to art because art has been shrouded in mysticism for centuries. The issues Skwire raises about literature are one such set of issues, and it is a pity that Skwire doesn’t discuss the fact that Rand explicitly considered and rejected some of the crucial categories and concepts that Skwire uses in her analysis.
Let’s consider some of the details.
Skwire classifies Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s other novels as didactic fiction. “We could also call it ‘moralizing fiction’ or ‘message fiction,’” she says. “It is fiction whose primary purpose is to instruct the reader rather than to entertain, to delight, or to inspire catharsis. It is a conference talk, a classroom lecture, a sermon disguised as a novel.” The immediate problem with such fiction, Skwire says, is that it is (often) boring. “The bigger problem with didactic fiction is the use of art as a vehicle to convey an ideological message.”
The first thing to notice about these categories is that there is an equation of a writer’s desire to express a moral viewpoint or an intellectual message with a desire to instruct or sermonize. But aren’t there other ways to present ideas than to teach or lecture? Isn’t art precisely one such way? There certainly are sermons masquerading as novels or as other types of fictional work. Medieval morality plays are one such example as is some twentieth-century socialist fiction, which Skwire mentions. But do such things really exhaust the field of artworks that contain a moralized point of view or a philosophical message? No.
The second thing to notice is the move from “moralizing fiction” and “message fiction” to the message being “ideological,” by which Skwire seems to mean social-political, and narrowly social-political at that. These are not close to equivalents, but are being treated as if they were. And so apparently a problem with didactic fiction is this: “Art that is explicitly and exclusively tied to one particular social problem comes with an expiration date.” By contrast, “Art that is invested in more timeless questions — the nature of friendship, conflicts between the individual and the group — last [sic] a lot longer.” But how is this supposed to apply to Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, neither of which is a book essentially about social-political issues? Atlas Shrugged is not a political but a metaphysical and moral novel: it is about the supreme importance of the mind to human existence. The Fountainhead’s theme is not political but moral and psychological: it is about the soul of an individualist and the soul of a collectivist. Don’t these books contain timeless messages? Who has written more than Rand about the conflicts between the individual and the group?
With confused categories like these, you can’t think straight.
The fact is that serious art usually has an intellectual meaning; it conveys a message; it contains abstract ideas and presents a distinctive point of view. This is what makes it serious. It has something to say. But if it is really art, the way it says it is not by lecturing, hectoring, teaching or preaching. Art communicates in a different manner, a phenomenon that Rand herself was interested in analyzing. An artwork is a carefully stylized, perceptual concrete — a painting, a statue, an integration of sounds into a musical composition, an integration of human actions into a play or a story — that is offered to us by the artist for our contemplation. It does not tell, it shows. Serious art is intellectual, but “intellectual” is not a synonym for “didactic,” as Skwire seems to be suggesting.
Consider some of the world’s great artists.
As I write this post, I’m listening to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the symphony widely considered to have shattered the classical form and ushered in the era of the Romantic symphony. The music is profound, intellectual, opinionated. Beethoven has something to say. Few listeners find it surprising, for instance, that Beethoven apparently dedicated the symphony to Napoleon, only to rescind the dedication when Napoleon declared himself emperor. Yet the intellectual content of the music does not convert it into anything like a conference talk; nor does it render the music dull, although it does make special demands on the listener. But for those able to appreciate it, the music’s intellectuality heightens its power.
Or take Shakespeare. One of my great pleasures in the last couple of years, since moving to the East Coast, has been to see a number of well-performed Shakespeare tragedies. You cannot leave the theater after seeing a good version of Hamlet or Othello or Julius Caesar without grasping that Shakespeare is a profoundly intellectual writer: he has much to say about man and life on earth. His characters engage in speeches and soliloquies. No one, neither today nor in Shakespeare’s time (with the possible exception of Shakespeare himself), can speak with the eloquence, intellectual exactness or emotional vividness that Shakespeare’s characters do. But all this intellectual content does not render the plays didactic or unentertaining, because this content is integral to the drama of the story. Without it, you cannot understand the characters’ motivations or actions, or the logic of the events.
The point here is not to compare Rand’s stature as an artist to that of Beethoven or Shakespeare, but only to suggest that reflection on their works can help us understand what she is trying to do as an artist: she is seeking to present profound intellectual content in dramatized form. This is precisely how she approached her career as a fiction writer: see “The Goal of My Writing.”
Rand’s specific, personal goal was to present her image of an ideal man. Because her conception of what is ideal is, in moral-philosophical terms, fundamentally different from the conceptions that have dominated Western thought, her stories must present numerous new ideas in order to make her new ideal vivid and real to the reader. But all this intellectual content is integral and subordinated to the story and its artistic vision.
Of course Rand was aware that not everyone would see it like this. Many would view the intense intellectual content of her novels as grafted on, at best a distraction from an interesting story, at worst a weight sinking the whole enterprise, rendering it didactic and dull. The Fountainhead, which has now sold over eight million copies, was rejected by twelve publishers, many of whom said it was too intellectual, a sermon that therefore would not sell. Rand had more confidence in herself and in readers.
She knew that The Fountainhead was brimming with new ideas, that it was an intellectual novel, that it had a timeless theme and message, that it demanded much from its reader — and that the novelty of its characters and the drama of its story would grip countless people. She viewed the success of The Fountainhead as proving her point: it reached the bestseller lists not because of an expensive PR campaign, leading to everyone buying the book and no one reading it, but because of individual word of mouth, months after publication. Her novels continue to sell over a hundred thousand copies a year. Should we really think that, now as then, when readers recommend the books to their friends, they see themselves as recommending a boring classroom lecture? Why would they want to inflict this on people they like?
Rather, it is precisely Rand’s intellectual-philosophical yet story-first approach that has won her millions of fans, many of whom will never come to agree with her worldview. They nevertheless can see that it is the intellectual content of the novels that makes it possible for the stories to contain the unique characters, conflicts and plots that they do. The love triangle between Gail Wynand, Dominique Francon and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, for instance, is one of the most unusual and dramatic the reader will encounter. Atlas Shrugged, its back cover rightly attests, is “a mystery story, not about the murder of man’s body, but about the murder — and rebirth — of man’s spirit.” The suspense builds and builds, to a powerful climax. Despite the length of the books, it’s common to meet readers who have devoured Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, barely sleeping until they reach the story’s end. I read Atlas Shrugged in three days, and it was for the story, not because I had some weird love of conference talks.
Rand’s fiction, particularly Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is unique: it is more explicitly philosophical than virtually every other novel, and through it the author takes a definite stand. But this doesn’t make the novels disguised sermons or conference talks. The novels are essentially stories, rife with conflict, in which the protagonist’s discovery and formulation of new philosophical principles dictates the actions he takes, around which the story’s events revolve. In other words, they are a new kind of story.
Anthem is about a future collectivist dystopia, which wages war against the individual, all the way down to trying to eliminate the individual’s ability to think of himself as an individual. The story is about the actions the hero takes to rediscover this suppressed knowledge, the conflicts in which this places him, and why his newfound knowledge enables him to triumph. The Fountainhead is about a creative genius who arrives at a new conception of individualism through which he lives his life, the widespread opposition and resentment that this causes, and why, when other creators would and do fall, his knowledge enables him to persevere and live a life of integrity and joy. Atlas Shrugged is about a crumbling world dominated by philosophic and moral ideas that set man against himself and his own life, a hero who grasps the inversions and corruptions involved and who, by formulating a new philosophy, finds a way to end the destruction and put himself and like-minded individuals on a better path.
Now one might still object that a fiction writer should not invent stories in which the discovery of new philosophical ideas is integral to the action. But to this I think the appropriate response is: why not? The objection reminds me of the esthetic opposition Roark faces in The Fountainhead. In real-life terms, it is rather like telling Beethoven that since the classical symphonic form was good enough for a genius like Mozart, it should be good enough for him. Beethoven could not express what he wanted to express in the classical form, so he invented new forms. Similarly, Rand has a very definite purpose as a fiction writer: to present a new conception of the ideal man. She offers it to us in the form of the character and actions of Howard Roark, John Galt, Dagny Taggart and the other heroes of her novels. To present what she wants to present, she cannot rely on the philosophical bromides or platitudes of the present or past, because in her estimate none of these produce the ideal. To make her new moral vision concrete and real, she invents a new kind of story, one in which the protagonist’s discovery of new philosophical knowledge drives his actions and the story’s conflicts. This is what makes Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged so unusual, and this is how we should approach these novels — not as didactic lessons to be endured but as unique stories worth enjoying and contemplating for their own sake.