On Ayn Rand on Writing (with application for Evangelicals) [Part One]

randI have been recently reading Jeff Walker’s book on the group that coalesced around Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden during the 1950s. These ‘students of Objectivism’ as they called themselves included future Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and have many current proponents such as GOP VP nominee Paul Ryan. It was an interesting group which continues to impact American life made all the more interesting by the fact that the bible for the group was not a dense book of philosophy but novels (one in particular) in the romantic style made famous by authors such as Victor Hugo.  So it was doubly amazed to get to a section of the work discussing the impact of Rand on the budding writers drawn to her little group many called “the Collective.” Here is author Jeff Walker’s discussuion of the artistic impact of the group (I apologize for there be so many names, read in context the names make sense, yet pulled out as I have done the names will not; yet I feel even if you do not know the people mentioned, the points remain valid even as pulled):

“Donway relates that as a youth he was doing well in writing. Then he read Ayn Rand on writing. It hadn’t occurred to him previously that he’d been writing realistic, naturalistic fare. Rand ‘made it sound like part of the international Communist conspiracy.’ He started writing badly, in the Rand-approved romantic mode. His instructor was dismayed that his subsequent stories lost all feeling and authenticity and asked him where his vision had gone. Donway was unreachable, classifying his instructor as just one of the bad guys attacking Romanticism. He then dismissed as sub-human a character in a novel by the instructor, who subsequently refrained from recommending him for further courses. Naturally Donway interpreted this as a ‘Howard Roark expelled by the Dean.’

John Ridpath has never had to worry about straying from rand’s party line in such matters. He still asserts that ‘if looked into more deeply, I predict… you would actually find it is true’ as Rand said, that ‘Beethoven did have a malevolent sense of life,’ as did Victor Hugo. Ridpath has invariably found “after I’ve looked into something… that lo and behold, in essence she had her finger on it correctly.’

Rand made aspiring writers feel that there was nothing worth writing about but heroes. Kay Noble Smith found that saying to herself, ‘I am now going to write about a hero’ would simply immobilize her brain. Phil Smith recalls that Edith Efron was always working on a novel, yet neither she nor Barbara Branden, also an aspiring novelist, ever published any fiction. Aside from Branden’s sycophantic Who Is Ayn Rand? and  Peikoff’s work written under Rand’s direction, only Hassen wrote his own books while still in good standing with Rand. Kay Noble Smith remarks that it was just a tremendously inhibiting, intimidating experience to write for, with, or under Rand.

Erika Holzer, author of Eye for an Eye (made into a 1996 movie with Sally Field), learned from Rand how not to treat young writers, whose egos can be fragile. Rand tore Rand tore Holzer’s 1970s-era screenplay apart, finding nothing good about it. Seemingly, everything she did was wrong and when Holzer left Rand’s apartment she remembers turning to husband Hank and saying ‘I’ll just stick to the law. I’m hopeless.’ She suggests that it was wrong of Rand not to smooth it out with, ‘This is bad but you can do this, there’s no need to give up.’ Holzer did give up writing for fiction for years. Decades later, ‘I went back to that screenplay as a published, experienced professional writer, and it’s not that bad.’” [1]

In this discussion about how the group dynamics and impact of Rand’s forceful personality struck me as something I had seen before. It almost seemed as if the author was describing the experience of being a writer in the Evangelical church. Take out mentions of Rand and Objectivism and insert a popular preacher and movement within the church (say Mark Driscoll and his brand of reformed brethren- not to pick on Mark) and one might  described the experience of many in the church. Time after time I have seen good young writers come into contact with the faith, change everything, and then ascribe any pushback in terms of demonic attack from evil professors or such.

I also quite relate to Ridpath and think yes Rand is probably right Beethoven and Hugo probably were quite maudlin. Perhaps Rand was right that this was such, and perhaps much of her evaluations on art and culture were probably right as well. But I come to end of agreement by asking the always important question of ‘so what?’ It is one thing to be right, and it is another for that rightness to come into being in a fully formed life. If one wanted to live a life like Rand then one might be amazed at her insights; but that still begs the question of worth. What are these insights worth? Are they helpful, useful, and to what type of life do they led?

These are the important questions which often cannot be addressed in large books of philosophy as well as they can be in the arts. For these reasons the arts stand as a troublesome spot for anyone attempting to replicate one’s self or one’s life in others. It is a challenge for both someone like Rand and someone pastoring a church. It also to me explains the hows and whys Christian art is sometimes so bad. I have sought on many occasions to point out ways in which this inability to think outside the box has jeopardized the ‘Christian’ artist. Yet in this quote one finds the real world example of our sometimes problematic act.

[1] Jeff Walker. The Ayn Rand Cult. (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 53-4.

[1]Walker, 51.

[1] Jeff Walker. The Ayn Rand Cult. (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 53-4.


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