The Art of Fiction - A Review

by Ayn Rand
Penguin Putnam 2000 

The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and ReadersAyn Rand is one of the most controversial authors in modern history. Some love her, some detest her. A philosopher first, a novelist second, her best-known books (Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead) have remained influential and have never gone out print. Regardless of your opinion, that achievement indicates that she knew something about how to write.

The book, The Art of Fiction, is actually a transcription of a workshop Ms. Rand gave about the writing craft, so the voice is different from most writing books. There's a lot of comments directed at "you" but it's something I adjusted to quickly, so I don't think it will cause anyone great distress.

One of the things I like about this is the way Rand believes in the power of the subconscious to do much of the creative work for you, but she also believes you have to stock your imagination for it to work well. That you need to train your mind to associate abstracts with concrete images. You fill your subconscious like a well-stock larder. This is the essence of show, don’t tell.  FREX, a patriot does more than flag waving. He stands, hand over heart, at the national anthem even if he’s in a crowd of people who show no respect. He donates time at the VA Hospital. He politically educated, because he knows he must guard his country with more than a show of arms.

Rand also talks about making every word count, and she puts her money where her mouth is by breaking down samples of her own writing, like this one: 

Clouds had wrapped the sky and had descended as fog to wrap the streets below, as if the sky were engulfing the city. She could see the whole of Manhattan Island, a long, triangular shape cutting into an invisible ocean. It looked like the prow of a sinking ship: a few tall buildings still rose above it, like funnels, but the rest was disappearing under gray-blue coils, going down slowly into vapor and space. This was where they had gone—she thought—Atlantis, the city that sank into the ocean, and all the kingdoms that vanished, leaving the same legend in all the languages of men, and all the same longing.

The description had four purposes:  (1) to give an image of the city from Dagny’s window, namely an image of what New York looks like on a foggy evening; (2) to suggest the meaning of the events which have been taking place, namely, the city as a symbol of greatness doomed to destruction; (3) to connect New York with the legend of Atlantis; (4) to convey Dagny’s mood. So the description had to be written on four levels: literal, connotative, symbolic, emotional.

Like most worthwhile books on writing, this one prods you to think about what you want to do and how to do it. On that level, it's easy to recommend. For those who write nonfiction, she also has a book about how to write that.


  1. It certainly sounds different from most of what I know of her other work.

  2. It is and it isn't. Rand always wrote with confidence and this is written with equal confidence. She backs up her confidence well in her explanations of what the writer needs to achieve, but she also allows that every artist is different.