A few years ago a teenage girl asked my sister, who is a high school librarian, for books by authors "who write like Ayn Rand." My sister knew who to come to for advice.
I named the romantic realist authors I could think of, then paused and said, "Actually... there's no one who writes like Ayn Rand."
I can sympathize with that girl, because I too would like to read books written like Rand's. I've never read anyone quite like her. She writes about this world, not some medieval fantasy land or space opera, yet she makes it exciting, with fascinating characters and a plot as good as any detective novel. And both character and plot are integrated with a philosophic theme and ideas that give the novels weight and depth. It is serious literature that is also a page-turner.
Her style combines logic and passion in a way that is her own. As Leonard Peikoff writes in The Early Ayn Rand, she unites concretes and abstractions, something most novelists never think of because they are not also philosophers.
Best of all, Ayn Rand is in no way "modern." Her stories are not about the depraved and the neurotic, the naked and the dead. There is no ambiguity of meaning, or worse, no absurdist dismissal of meaning. No plotless navel gazing.
Her fiction is romantic realism, the rarest and most difficult writing to achieve, fiction that integrates serious thought and exciting plot, fact and value, mind and body.
If that girl tries Dostoyevsky, she will find great fiction, despite Nabokov's contempt for the author. However, she might be disappointed by the emphasis on characters who are immoral, disgusting and, well, Russian. Also, Dostoyevsky's style takes some getting used to. Has there ever been a great novelist so little interested in descriptive passages? His novels read like massive plays and the description is little more than stage directions just to give the reader a perfunctory idea of the set behind the actors.
If that girl tries Victor Hugo, she will find great fiction, but again, she will have to put up with Hugo's loggorheic style. If you think Shakespeare is bad because he can pile metaphor on metaphor, on and on, Hugo is even worse. He especially loves to elaborate paradoxes: it was night, but it was day; it was black, but it was white; it was good, but it was bad. It's a great technique because it is dramatic -- the paradoxes are about the value conflict -- but after a few pages, this reader is ready to move along with the story. If I recall correctly, Paul Johnson called Hugo the greatest writer who had nothing to say. Perhaps that is an unfair exaggeration.
I don't know what other famous writers could be called romantic realist. I've heard Arnold Bennett categorized thus, but his fiction is much less interesting than the great stuff. I'm not familiar enough with George Eliot to give an opinion. Middlemarch is on my shelf, but I have not gotten around to it. Same with Walter Scott. Dumas is a lot of fun, but he lacks seriousness and depth of thought.
There are a lot of great plays, by authors such as Schiller, Ibsen and Rostand, but reading plays presents the reader with challenges. Some enjoy reading plays, but most people prefer fiction. As an actor I've always been the opposite -- not only do I love reading plays, but I read novels like they were plays. When I read The Idiot as a young man, I kept thinking, "That's a good monologue" and "I could play Mishkin." When I read The Fountainhead I desperately wanted to play Peter Keating; I acted the lines in my head as I read and had him cold.
Maybe I failed that girl looking for books by authors who write like Ayn Rand. What would you have told her?