Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Book Review

Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher by Erika Holzer has a lot of good tips for writers. Holzer was fortunate to have Ayn Rand give her private lessons in fiction writing in the 1960’s. The book has anecdotes of conversations the author had with Ayn Rand.

The portrait of Ayn Rand in this book is different from the smears of her enemies. Murray Rothbard, the Brandens and even William F. Buckley, Jr. in a recent novel depict Rand as a bizarre woman who dictated how others must think. There is none of that here.

Being a philosopher as well as a novelist (and a good introspecter), Ayn Rand understood better than anyone the thinking a writer needs to do to create good fiction. She understood that she could not do Holzer’s thinking for her and instead pointed her in the direction of the work she needed to do.

People with a shallow or rationalistic understanding of Objectivism might be surprised that Rand advised Holzer to write about things she had strong feelings about. Rand urged fiction writers to be selfish and write about what excited them. Otherwise, writing feels too much like a duty and if anything gets done the product is lifeless.

Rand also advised a writer not to overdo the outline, but to leave room for flexibility. A detailed, rigid outline shuts down the subconscious from producing new ideas.

Holzer’s tips on revising are especially useful, as she lists what she looks for in each pass. She might go through a manuscript one time just looking for clich├ęs, another time just looking for character consistency, etc. This is not platonic, inspirational writing. The amount of revising work and the different things Rand and Holzer looked for are good to know. A writer needs to put in the extra effort.

I was surprised to see that on the subject of how to make a logical progression of events, Ayn Rand sounds very much like Bernard Grebanier and the syllogism method he writes about in Playwriting. Grebanier got his ideas on plot from a critic named William Price, who got his ideas from Aristotle. Here is how Holzer says Rand explains the logical progression of Romeo and Juliet:

To have a logical progression, you must first have a common dramatic element. Look at it in three steps.

Step one: love at first sight.

Step two: marriage.

The common element is the family feud. It infuses step one and two with drama and builds in a logical progression to an inevitable question – to step three:

Will they be happy?

At first glance it might seem odd that something as emotional and exciting as drama depends on logic, which most people think of as dry and detached from values. But in fact, without logical inevitability there is no drama. The process of “if this, then that” is the essence of a logical progression of events – the essence of a plot.

Some parts of Holzer’s book are less interesting, such as her Hollywood experiences. She wastes two chapters on endorsements for her novels. The chapter discussing what actors should play the parts in Atlas Shrugged will be outdated in five years, which is just as well – the actors Holzer picks all seem hopelessly inadequate to me. Russell Crowe as Hank Reardon? Annette Benning as Dagny Taggart? Gag.

In one annoying chapter Holzer fictionalizes a conversation with Ayn Rand about the 2002 Academy Awards show. It didn’t sound like Ayn Rand to me. I can’t picture her saying “reverse racism,” which is just racism, or talking about hobbits.

UPDATE: I should add that Erika Holzer has published in a libertarian magazine and might have some association with the Objectivist Center, I don't know for sure. This might be enough to stop some Objectivists from buying this book.

The information in the book itself is good and there is no Rand-bashing. Holzer had important conversations with Ayn Rand about fiction writing; I'm glad the knowledge has been preserved for history.

Although I support the Ayn Rand Institute, I speak for no one but myself. Anyone who wants to learn the ideas of Ayn Rand should read her books.

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