There are people in the world who think Ayn Rand’s books are the bees’ knees. I am not one of these people. I don’t think Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or even Doctor Who would approve of the message of the work, and even allowing that Ms Rand is not a native speaker, her prose is wooden and her characters are somewhere on a flatness scale between a supporting role in a James Cameron epic and a photograph of a model who is posed to make one believe that the model is in the midst of some sort of dashing, amazing adventure far more exciting than a mere, excruciatingly dull photo shoot.
No, she is not a great writer. She might be, generously, an okay scribbler, if you don’t mind rape, annoying narcissists, and extreme pro-capitalist-wealth-industrial aristocracy. If your idea of a good time is counting your money on your second yacht while your fifth wife is sleeping off a hangover in preparation for another hangover, you are probably a fan of Ayn Rand. It’s almost inevitable, in fact. The closer you aspire to that idealized, stereotyped superrich made-up example that I made up, the more likely you are to like Ayn Rand.
The whole question of the material, then, as a critic of literature is nothing to do with Ayn Rand at all. What interests me more about the whole thing is the (slightly unsettling) question of my own tastes as a reader and my aesthetic as a writer. How much is what I read and write predisposed based on personal stuff? More specifically, how many books do I like simply because I agree with their message before I even pick them up? Even more specifically, how many relatively trite, trivial books do I adore (and the people in my social sphere, all of us barking praise, forming a tunnel of sound like a song of praise) simply because I am pre-disposed to enjoy the book? How many times have I written something based on my pre-disposition towards it despite the subject matter’s actual triviality? How many books are considered great literature not because they are truly great, but because the people who make curriculums are pre-disposed to enjoy the book because of weird quirks of their collective background?
Kafka, for instance, looms large in my literary canon. The Hunger Artist’s peaceful, self-negating, act of performance seems like exactly the sort of thing I am supposed to love. And I love it. I think of it as an artistic ideal I will never achieve, performing for an empty room if I must to be allowed to be doing what I was born to do. Doing it on stage, indifferent to the crowd. Doing it, like Jeffrey Ford’s “The Way He Does It” all over and everywhere and no one can stop it even if they wanted to. But, I look to quirks of my background — like my disaffected suburban upbringing, the moving as a child that took away my sense of space with the big box stores and chain stores at every corner, and the constant, insufferable “branding” of everything around me that’s always for sale or selling something. I am pre-disposed to love Kafka.
I have never read it in the original German. At one point in my life, I could have, but I never had the inclination to give it a shot. (I was always better at speaking German than reading it. Curse my audio-holic learning style!) I consider Kafka’s work marvelous, haunting. Ten minutes ago, I would have automatically told you it was “classic” literature. Yet, the translations, to me, are all I know of the stuff, and more than that the pre-disposition to love the work exists too deeply to be extricated from fair and equitable judgment. That others like Kafka seems to speak as much to the reality that there are many disaffected modern folks, watching wars on television with full bellies and the vague sense of ignorant impotence one gets from watching CNN. There are programs that exist to train people both in the critical appreciation of the arts and the indoctrination in passing that appreciation forward to new people. We call them graduate school. In the test one has to take to even apply to graduate school in English, one is asked all sorts of questions about writers and works that demonstrate both a working knowledge of the books, as well as a working knowledge of a general critical consensus about these works. Have you read enough, and correctly, to get in? Do you agree with us by default when pressed for time in a timed test? Are you one of us? Do you like Kafka?
Well, do you? Or do you like Rand?
What do you think that says about you as a person? Are you predisposed to loving that shit?
How much of what we do as writers is just creating a mirror for someone else’s desire, and how much of it is changing the world one line of ink at a time? How much of what we do as readers is seeking out that mirror of our own desires writ large by someone not-us, like a daily affirmation?
I’m almost done with this revision, and I’m not even sure it’s worthwhile. The only people who will love this book are the people who are pre-disposed to loving it.
I guess that makes me a Literary Calvinist. It’s not so bad, I guess. I find that I’m completely indifferent to negative reviews. I am completely indifferent to following trends. Money will come or it will not come. All of it, pre-determined.
I make flags, not books. People rally behind them if they want to, but one needs to be a patriot to love the thing, and I only write for patriots of the nation I would want to be a citizen therein, of compassion and humanism and unending hope against hope.
At least, that’s what I believe tonight. Tomorrow, I may come up with some new personal philosophy or aesthetic ideal.
The other question about Ayn Rand is how anyone could read as much as she did and as widely and never change her mind about anything at all, though her marriage and her world burns down because of this ideal, and her friends drop away from her never to return. How could anyone read so much and feel so much and never change her mind?
It’s not as interesting a question, to me, but there it is.