Many people would like to do what Ayn Rand did

Wednesday, September 29th, 2021

Ayn Rand pretty much failed as a philosopher, Michael Huemer says, but she was a brilliant novelist:

Most literature buffs disagree with this; indeed, most would probably say Rand was a terrible novelist. I think the reason for this is not that Rand was objectively terrible, but rather that the overwhelming majority of literature fans (especially, e.g., students and professors of literature) fall within a certain range of tastes, which are connected to their general personality traits. This is a selection effect, i.e., only people with a certain psychology choose to become literature experts.

Rand intentionally wrote a particular kind of novel, which literature people happen not to like; thus, no matter how good the novels are within that category, most literature people will hate them.

And what category was that? You might call it “the propaganda novel” (where “propaganda” is of course used in a purely descriptive sense, not as a term of abuse). They are novels designed to advance a philosophical worldview, and to do so in a clear, forceful, and (to those who might be receptive to that worldview) inspiring manner. They are not subtle, nor are they supposed to be. They are supposed to dramatize Ayn Rand’s worldview.

Leaving aside (for now) the question of whether Rand’s worldview is right, is this a worthy goal for a novel? Well, consider all the novels whose central goal is to provoke a feeling of horror (horror novels), or wonder (science fiction and fantasy), or excitement (action novels). Communicating one’s philosophy is at least as worthwhile and reasonable as those goals. Whether this counts as “literature” or not is neither here nor there.

Given that this is in principle a worthwhile thing to do, and given that that is the type of novel Rand set out to write, her works have to be judged by the standards of that genre. By those standards, she succeeds about as well as anyone has ever done. Can you think of another novel that has created as many devoted followers of a philosophical movement as Atlas Shrugged?

Many people would like to do what Ayn Rand did — many would like to communicate their ideas to people all over the world, and many would like to write bestsellers. Some of the world’s smartest people have tried to do those things. Almost none of them can do it. If you or I try to do what Rand did, we will not succeed. So let’s admit that Rand had an exceptional talent for that kind of writing.

That said, I understand very well what some people hate about her writing. It is very heavy handed, black-and-white, and often angry and deliberately insulting towards people with different ideas. These characteristics, however, are part of how Rand succeeded. If she had communicated her ideas in a manner that most literature fans would like, then you would have never heard of her and we wouldn’t be talking about her now.

Rand’s most subtle novel, by the way, was her first: We the Living. It is the only of her works that features a socialist character who has integrity. It’s also far less popular than her more propagandistic novels.

In sum: Ayn Rand set out to do something that is in principle worthwhile, that hardly anyone is capable of doing, and she succeeded better than just about anyone ever has. That requires enormous talent.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    “It is very heavy handed, black-and-white, and often angry and deliberately insulting towards people with different ideas.”

    Compared to what? Compared to whom?

    What she saw clearly – and illustrated – is that not all people who express ideas are sincere. Too many professed ideas are a coverup, an excuse, a mask for hidden, venal motives. She called them out on their bullshit.

    Never debate ideas with this type of people. If you take their ideas at face value, you’ve been suckered. Simply point out their hypocrisy by what they actually do, then move on to your ideas, as if their ideas don’t exist. Because really, they don’t exist as such.

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    Give a teenager with an IQ over 105 (smart fraction) an Ayn Rand novel and often the arc of his future life is redirected away from being forged into a Democrat by American “Education.” Ayn Rand has been an anodyne for good in this degenerate era of Statism.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Dan, not many teens will finish an Ayn Rand novel.

    Atlas Shrugged is one third science fiction. Unfortunately for the barely-above-average teen, it’s the last third.

    Stupid kids will grow up to be stupid adults, no matter what. What this sort of fiction does that’s useful is this: it helps the smart ones crystallize their doubts.

    It’s far more useful as deprogramming than as ideology. Objectivism just isn’t all that well thought through. But Rand’s critique of conventional wisdom is bracing. She denied being influenced by Nietzsche, but she continued where he left off.

  4. David Foster says:

    We the Living” is the best of her books at literature and in terms of character development; the political message is implied rather than explicit compared with the later books.

    There was also a quite good movie made from the book, in Fascist Italy of all places. Apparently the censors noted that it was anti-Communist and passed it on that basis; they were too dumb to see that it was more generally anti-totalitarian. When this was recognized, the movie was withdrawn.

  5. Lucklucky says:

    Fascist Italy sold warships and more to the Communists, and there was an Italy-Soviet Union Pact.

    The reason it was accepted is that at that time the Pact was broken by WW2.

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