Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ayn Ascendant, Again

Ayn Rand, who never really went away, is having a landmark year in 2009. Sales of Atlas Shrugged have surged since the financial crisis. Some members of the Right, few of whom are actually Objectivists, have coined the term "Going Galt," a reference to the hero of the novel, as a shorthand for opposition to the leftward shift the Obama administration is taking the country. A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, long stuck in development hell, seems poised to become a television miniseries. And now, two major biographies of Rand, Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market and Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, have been published in the last three weeks. (See my review of Goddess of the Market here.)

This confluence of events has resulted in a flurry of articles and reviews by major publications like Time, Newsweek, and The New Republic. Burns recently spoke about Rand on The Daily Show (see below). The New York Times alone has devoted two reviews of these bios in a week (one by Janet Maslin, and a forthcoming front-page review in this Sunday's Book Review). Most of the reviews, while praising the quality of the bios, have been highly critical of Rand herself. Most notably, Jonathan Chait's review of the books for TNR was merely a springboard for a sneering diatribe against Rand. (It seemed unclear that he had ever read Rand's, or Burns' and Heller's, books.)

Is this recent resurgence of Rand good news for fans like me? A couple of weeks ago I had a heated discussion on this very topic, with a friend of mine who is also an Objectivist. He argued that the bios, and the media attention surrounding them, only further obfuscate Rand's ideas. He makes a good point. Burns and Heller, who have become admirers of Rand, misconstrue many of her ideas, and play up her tumultuous personal life. The reviews of their books cull them for their negative bits, and largely ignore the praise the authors have for Rand.
[A brief aside on this last point: Earlier today, I attended a discussion on Rand, featuring Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller, at the Cato Institute. Before the start of the talk, the aforementioned NYT Book Review piece was distributed to the audience. One of the review's many incorrect assertions popped out at me (and at a fellow audience member). The reviewer, Adam Kirsch, describes how Rand accepted a 7 cent-per-copy decrease in royalties, to ensure Galt's climatic 60-page philosophical speech in Atlas Shrugged remained completely intact:
That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. [...]

[W]hile Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love for capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.
The final question of the night was about this assertion. The audience member who also took umbrage asked Heller what she thought of it. How could the reviewer misunderstand Rand's ideas so? "Few critics understand Ayn Rand," she replied, to great applause. "It was an investment -- and it paid off." Indeed.]
I think this recent attention, however negatively skewed, is still a very good thing. Rand has been receiving negative reviews since the publication of her first novel. This has never affected her popularity, with some thanks to a few notable champions, but mostly due to popular word of mouth recommendations. But these books bring a serious study of Rand and her ideas, one thing Rand has always lacked. And, I know this will sound like apostasy to my fellow Objectivists, I think their mixed evaluation of Rand actually encourages further academic study. These books could never be described as fawning hagiographies by devotees. Nevertheless, they take Rand -- her ideas, her art, and her impact -- seriously. How can this be seen as a bad thing?

For Objectivism to have a real impact on the culture, it has to studied impartially. Inroads have already been made. But, I don't know how any fan could argue that ignoring Ayn Rand is better than giving her more attention, however mixed that attention is.

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