Friday, July 11, 2008

Sui Generis

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?


Matt said...

You're right, there are no other authors like Ayn Rand. If she wanted something along the line of heroic, romantic realism I would recommend Ed Cline's "Sparrowhawk" series. Of course, not on the level of Rand, but excellent all the same.

As a side note, I hated "Middlemarch". It can be called "realist", I suppose, but it is merely an amalgam of dull slice-of-life stories packaged as one novel. And it is philosophically atrocious (though not forgivably so, like Hugo).

Myrhaf said...

Your description of Middlemarch is probably I've been meaning to read it for decades but never can quite get around to it.

GDW said...

Noble Vision by Gen LaGreca was good. I especially think a teenaged girl would enjoy it. If you're not familiar, it's about a ballerina who goes blind and a doctor's fight to restore her sight.

Chuck said...

One excellent novel recommended by AR was Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising. Many of Allen Drury's novels were reviewed and recommended in AR's periodicals, such as Advise and Consent.

Then a step down from serious Romantic fiction is the light fiction she recommended, such as Calumet K by Merwin and Webster. I would add several other novels by Samuel Merwin: The Merry Anne, The Whip Hand, The Road Builders, and The Short Line War.

She also liked some of the short fiction of Frank Spearman, who specialized in railroad fiction. I also like Spearman's westerns, such as Selwood of Sleepy Cat, Laramie Holds the Range, etc.

Some other light fiction/adventure authors that are worth reading: Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason stories; Donald Hamilton; Alistair MacLean; Mickey Spillane; Mabel Seeley.

Bezzle said...

Ayn Rand's own "favorite novel" ought to be good enough: Calumet K

Amazon reader reviews:

Jennifer Snow said...

She might enjoy trying Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance.

I think Neil Stephenson approaches being a modern-day Victor Hugo, with Crytonomicon being his best book thus far. He's not exactly a romantic realist because his books have strong naturalist leanings.

Myrhaf said...

I read Calumet K. I must confess, I was bored out of my mind by it.

Anonymous said...

You're not going to get the whole thing in one package. It would almost require follow-up questions to see what kind of inadequacies in an author the girl best tolerates and what parts of Rand's writings she was most drawn to. Then, you can give some caveats and recommend what remains.

That said, I'm with Jennifer on this - the sci-fi genre enjoyed a Golden Age for a time because they were essentially romantic and - what with the whole science thing - realist (sort of). To varying degrees depending on the author.

Some people just don't like sci-fi, though.

Still, whatever you recommend is going to fall short in some maddening way. Maddening, because now she knows that the flaws are avoidable.

Kyle Haight said...

I second the recommendation of Ed Cline's "Sparrowhawk" series. Cline is, in my opinion, the first Objectivist novelist to "get it right". He has thoroughly internalized Rand's artistic theories and methodology, but he deploys them in service of his own values and agenda. As a result, he is the only Objectivist author I have read who never sounds like Ayn Rand. He sounds like Ed Cline, which is as it should be.

Cline's books are one of the best-kept secrets in the Objectivist movement; I was amazed by the number of people I met at OCON who had never heard of them.

On a lower level, I rather enjoyed the novel Freehold by Michael Williamson. It's technically science fiction, but the story itself could be transplanted to another setting. It's basically about a woman who flees a tyrannical culture and settles in a free, frontier one where she builds a life for herself. Then the tyranny she fled decides to invade her new home. Wacky hijinks ensue. I thought the characterization was well-done, and Williamson managed the difficult feat of writing a novel portraying a free society without falling into the polemical traps so endemic to the sub-genre. The best compliment I can pay to it is that, after finishing it, I really wanted to move there myself and spend time with the characters.

Mike said...

Ed Cline or Terry Goodkind. Cline when you want to read about the real world through an objectivist filter, Goodkind when you want to see what another world would look like through that same lens.

Chuck said...

Another good, Romantic novel I just remembered: The Gadfly, by E.L. Voynich. I saw it recommended on some blog years ago, and it was as good as advertised.

The plot revolves around an Italian revolutionary, who is especially opposed to the Church. I cannot remember if he is a communist, but I know this novel was very popular in the Soviet Union. Maybe that was just because of its atheistic elements, along with revolution.

Anyway, the value conflicts are outstanding, and the story is written very well. I recommend it.

Bezzle said...

Articles from Cline:

Myrhaf said...

I thank everyone for their suggestions. I'll try to get around to reading them all in the next few years. If you can think of any more good books, please note them here. With the disgusting state of American politics today, it is rejuvenating to turn to good art.

Bezzle said...

See also "The Prince of Foxes" (novel and movie starring Tyrone Power)

Valda Redfern said...

I happen to have started reading my first Terry Goodkind a few days ago (Chainfire) and am about a hundred and thirty pages into its total of 667 pages. It's been hard going. I fear that TG may be an "Objectivist" writer, because the novel is full of stuff like this: "Ultimately only brutality could enforce the irrationality and dead end of self-sacrifice" (in the description of a city called, irritatingly, "Altur'Rang"). TG also has a habit of explaining everything twice, and his style suggests to me that the reason is his inability to explain it properly the first time. I'll plough on, but hope fades.

Chris McKenzie said...

Goodkind is better in the beginning. I'd suggest putting down Chainfire and starting with the first book in the series: "Wizard's First Rule". "Temple of the Winds" is my least favorite (book 4), but books 5 and 6 are great. 7 and 8 are not up to the standard set by the previous pair. "Chainfire" is the beginning of the trilogy that ends the series.
I wonder if TG became and Objectivist after he started writing the series. His style seems to make a dramatic change around book 6. I LIKE book 6, but it does feel somewhat derivative of Rand at that point. What he does well is that the philosophy is treated as a series of discoveries or "Wizard's Rules" by the main character.