The Romantic Manifesto

  Puppy:  off
  Word of the day:  Romantic

I bought The Romantic Manifesto the other day and read it on the T. I found it even more helpful than the how-to books I’ve read: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card and The Science of Science-Fiction Writing by James Gunn. The former is the industry standard, featuring the secret MICE system of writing sf/f. I’d hoped the latter was about science in sci-fi, but it wasn’t. It was barely about writing sf at all - it was more interesting as a biography of Asimov.

Anyway, back to Ayn Rand - she’s a wonderful read, if only to hear someone refer to famous works of literature as “vile” and their authors as “evil”. Technically, The Romantic Manifesto is not about the mechanics of writing but about the philosophy of art, but it still manages to cover most of the MICE mechanics, explain what the problem is with sci-fi and touch on Rand’s own motivation for writing - all on the side, as it were, of her aesthetic philosophy. She also discusses the difference between moral and aesthetic judgment of novels, and includes a fun short story at the end.

I read The Romantic Manifesto a decade ago, so it’s the most likely source of my own ideas about plot. Ayn Rand insists that the novel be plot-driven - every point of character and theme must proceed from the plot. You could think of it as a book-wide version of “show, don’t tell”. She insists that the heroes, at least, have as much personal volition as the plot has action (and the plot must have action), and she gives contrasting examples of both characterization and style.

To Ayn Rand, a novel is its own justification - it is not a gravy-train, or a morality play, or a disposable piece of entertainment. The function it serves for the reader is escapism - the reader escapes into the ideal world, the one that matches his own ideas and feelings about life, for the duration of his time between the covers. That makes it doubly strange that Rand dislikes sci-fi. (Atlas Shrugged is, arguably, sci-fi.)

Science fiction, she claims, is a mixture of the good (Romantic) and the bad (Naturalistic) tendencies of the novel. An sf plot is always Romantic (idealized, with plenty of action, a notion of good and evil, and heroes working towards the good) but the characters tend to be Naturalistic Everymen swept along by external events, sketchily drawn with little psychological consideration. No one will argue that character has always been the great weakness of sci-fi, so that when someone like LMB comes along the difference is shocking. (I had to get her in here somewhere.)

I highly recommend The Romantic Manifesto to writers; even if you disagree with Ayn Rand, she’s always a good example of what it means to have a reason for doing what you do - in this case, writing. The goal of her novels was to exhibit the ideal man. In the process she made a kind of bible out of them, which she readily refers back to to make her points. Literature is a means of conveying ideas, she mentions, that it would take reams of philosophy to explain - but you have to have something to say.

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