Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Art of Writing Fiction

Posted by Jerry on November 9, 2006

I am in the midst of reading Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction. One of the countless amazing insights that Rand offers in this treasure-chest of a book is the approach to writing not as one thinks but as one sees. In other words, Rand says she does not present the reader with thoughts in her mind but concrete and sensory facts to be perceived or visualized directly. Of course, some may find this merely a rewording of the adage “show, don’t tell.” However, note how Rand elaborates on why should a good writer not tell but show. She bases it consistently and logically on her philosophical committment to reality, the nature of perception, and the experience of concretes, thereby applying the principles of her own philosophy to her artistic approach:

Rand explains:

I always reproduce human awareness as it is experienced in reality, assuming a certain kind of character. I make human epistemology my guide–in the selection of content and words. I present the material as a human mind would perceive it in reality. All perception is selective. We are not cameras; in any given situation, no one sees everything. We see that which interests us, that which our values require us to focus on. When I write, I substitute my selectivity for the reader’s; I present those highlights I want him to observe and leave him no room to focus on anything else. His awareness will then follow as if the material were actual reality. But he will be observing reality as I observe it–i.e., from my viewpoint, according to my value choice.

What this means in practice is, Rand’s razor sharp selectivity slices away mundane, meaningless, accidental, and extraneous materials that add nothing to the substance of what’s being said. She writes as one would experience a reality under a certain character. For example, Rand never wrote anything like “I’m madly in love,” or “Love is an important value” in her fictional works. Observe how Rand projects the intense emotion of Dagny’s love for John Galt:

“She kept seeing his figure in her mind–his figure as he had stood at the door of the structure–she felt nothing else, no wish, no hope, no estimate of her feeling, no name for it, no relation to herself–there was no entity such as herself, she was not a person, only a function, the function of seeing him.” To have said that she wanted to sleep with him, or that she realized she loved him, would have been weaker than saying that she is reduced to nothing but seeing his figure in her mind [Note Rand’s extreme selectivity of the particular sensory experience of reality–that of seeing someone]. Such conclusions as “I am in love with him” or “I want to marry him” are abstractions. They are thoughts, and would come later. The actual emotion would be experienced precisely as an extreme awareness of the other person, which is the essence of falling in love.

The conclusion conveys just that: “and the sight was its own meaning and purpose, with no further end to reach.” This is the extreme state of being in love, where the issue is not sex, or any purpose, but (to put it colloquially) only the awareness that the loved one exists–which then fills the whole world.

Another exemplary illustration of Rand’s literary style is one recently pointed out by John Enright in a verse from Ayn Rand’s Anthem:

“The fields are black and ploughed, and they lie like a great fan before us, with their furrows gathered in some hand beyond the sky, spreading forth from that hand, opening wide apart as they come toward us, like black pleats that sparkle with thin, green spangles.”

John correctly points out the emphasis on visual description–writing as if one were seeing or experiencing reality, not as if one were merely hearing a story being narrated. John says:

So she starts with a camera-eye view of receding parallel rows, finds a metaphor (“fan held by a giant hand”) for that appearance, and describes it as actively happening (“opening”). That’s pretty characteristic. Heck, then she turns the dirt into black pleats and the plants into green spangles, just to give a completely metaphorical vivid description.

Another aspect of Rand’s literary approach was noted by blogger Peter Saint-Andre, who said:

“Rand almost never compares an abstraction to a concrete or vice-versa, preferring to compare one concrete to another (the sky is like a huge furnace, smokestacks are fuming matchsticks, pine trees are tall red candles or like columns of dark brick, hotel towers are like the spokes of a fan, flat roofs are like pedals, roof gardens float down like handkerchiefs, stars are like foam).”

Essentially, Rand’s approach–as she most aptly labeled–is Romantic Realism, a perfect union of ideas and reality, as things ought to be and as they are in reality. Ever since I read Rand’s major fictional works–The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and We The Living–I have dimly felt this sense of disappointment in not yet finding another work of fiction (or non-fiction, even) that has so intensely gripped my consciousness or that has left any lasting impressions in me. In fact, We The Living remains my favorite novel thus far.

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One Response to “Art of Writing Fiction”

  1. John Enright said

    For people who really like Rand’s writing,
    It’s hard to find anything quite as exciting.

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