The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand


Cover of The Fountainhead
Cover of The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand

Howard Roark laughed. (I approve of this. It asks a narrative question – who is this guy, and why did he laugh? – and I like short sentences anyway.)

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. (Whoah, whoah, hold up. So far, it was all tight and Hemingway-esque. “The pants fit him. They felt good.” Now you suddenly switch to purple prose, with granite bursting in flight? I didn’t know that granite rocks flew, or exploded when they did decide to take wing. No.) The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays. (More purple prose. Hate it. Though I do smile at all the double-entendre action. Let’s try again.)

The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half.  The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff. (What? I think Ayn Rand was smoking a bowl here.)

His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. (Things are either curved, straight or angled. That pretty much covers it. Maybe the only other people in this book are Flat Stanley and the Blob.) He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind. (No man would ever describe his hair as “ripe orange rind.” He’d say, “I’m a red-head” or “I’m blond” or “I don’t know.”)

He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning (Oh, right. So funny!) and at the things which now lay ahead. (Yes — also hilarious. I laugh at that all the time. Maybe let’s use different ways to hint at backstory and do foreshadowing.)

He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. (Enough with the laughing about things that may or may not have happened, and difficult plans, and thinking about not thinking. We can go to this well once or twice, but not every sentence.)

He tried to consider it. But he forgot. (Or maybe we can jump into that well and stay there forever.) He was looking at the granite.

He did not laugh (Oh, we’re NOT laughing now?) as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature— (You have got to be kidding me.)

End of Page 1

Notes from The Red Pen of Doom

I believe the readers of today – like me – don’t want (a) tons of purple prose, (b) paragraph after paragraph of character description or (c) 3.4 metric tons of purple prose that’s all character description and internal dialogue.

But there are bigger fish to fry here, both in the literary sense of Is This A Good Page One? and in the story sense.

Ayn Rand is a deity among conservatives, because her novels underpin what she calls the “philosophy” of objectivism, which says it’s quite unselfish to be selfish. This is obviously counter-intuitive and quite appealing in a juvenile kind of way, because hey, it’s now my moral duty to do whatever I want. The best way to take care of others is to only care about yourself. The surest path to aid the poor is to cut taxes for the rich. And so forth.

This philosophy intrudes upon the story. Roark, the hero of this novel, roughly has his way with Dominique, the heroine, when they first meet. She later describes it as rape. Dominique makes Sylvia Plath look mentally stable. To show her undying love for Roark, she marries … some rich man. Then she tries to destroy Roark, divorces that rich man to marry another rich dude, keeps on trying to destroy Roark, then finally divorces that other rich schmuck to marry Roark in the end, but only after Roark TRIES TO BLOW UP A BUILDING that he designed.

If you said “This is a book that makes a hero out of a selfish architect who’s a strong-willed, good-looking rapist and terrorist,” you’d kinda sorta be accurate. And yes, I read the entire book. Twice. I WROTE A PAPER ON IT.

So the first page does foreshadow a lot of things. Ayn Rand has “a frozen explosion of granite” in the second graf. She has a whole bunch of imagery and descriptions of Roark’s perfect body.

HOWEVER: If I hadn’t already read this book, I’d see this first page and think it was some kind of historical romance, with Roark’s kilt and dirk sitting over on that rock, his trusty horse waiting for him after he took a swim and rode off to rescue his favorite maiden, a red-haired beauty held captive by the twisted and disfigured Baron of Whateverthehell.

Otherwise, I don’t hate her writing per se. I merely despise it.

Usually, I can fix a line or a paragraph. Big chunks of this first page simply need to die. The best thing is to cut them out.

Does that whack about half of this first page? Yes.

Would that make it better? Yes.

There’s a weird mix of styles going on here. You get short, clipped sentences, tight and hard, with zero fatty modifiers. But then Ayn the Rand switches to long stretches of not only purple prose, but outright wackiness I expect from college sophomores writing flash fiction at three in the morning on the deadline day after hitting the bong FAR TOO HARD.

The Verdict:

There’s a reason 12 publishers rejected this novel before it found a home. Hate the first page. Hate the hero, and the heroine who tries to destroy Roark because she loves him so much. Hate the story. Hate the “philosophy.” It’s a tough call, whether THE FOUNTAINHEAD or OUTLANDER are more deserving of being thrown across the room. But I’m going with THE FOUNTAINHEAD.

85 thoughts on “The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

  1. Reblogged this on Paper Boats and commented:
    I don’t usually hate books. I like most, love some and want to marry a chosen few. But The Fountainhead, oh how I detested that book with every new sentence I read. But I still went through the entire thing because I can’t leave a book (no matter how mind-numbingly aggravating) unfinished. And I was surprised because everyone around me, whose opinions I generally agreed with, seemed to love the book and absolutely idolised Ayn Rand. The friend who lent me The Fountainhead also lent me Atlas Shrugged, a book I just can’t bear to tackle at the moment. Maybe ever. Reading this take-down of my least favourite book was an excessively satisfying experience.


  2. I tried to read The Fountainhead. Twice.
    When I got to the part where someone (I forget who, and anyway, who cares?) broke an ancient statue so that no one else could have it. Couldnt go any further.
    btw, this comment section is spastic. Sorry for typos.
    I never liked what I read of the Fountainhead. Thought the story was counterintuitive and the writing convoluted.
    But as so many people raved about it, I thought the problem was with me.
    Your critique shows that conclusion was incorrect.
    The Fountainhead was my first contact with literary ‘art.’


    1. The book is terrible and the story is incoherent.

      There’s a case to be made for libertarianism and individualism. She’s just the wrong person to make it. Why the right wing turned her into some kind of icon is a mystery, especially since she was a raging atheist and completely pro-choice.


  3. I agree with all your comments. I have a book on my shelf I won’t be reading. And I can think of many more you would tear up. But are there any openings you particularly like. Dialogue? Action? Great internal voice? I won’t even say setting- No one can get away with that anymore. Thanks. And I will try to find another book you can shred. 🙂


  4. I was wondering what to use as fuel during/after the zombie apocalypse. I’m so glad someone has finally helped me with that. It’s also helpful to know there are no dirty bits in Atlas Shrugged. That’s saved me a ton of time.


  5. LOL! I read ATLAS SHRUGGED when I was 19. I did not fall for the philosophy (thanks to the peace-symbol wearing 60s throwback college professor I had at the time who had, it must be noted, met AR and thought her a bitter old bat), but I admit I was completely and totally hooked by the story. (Oh, except for that interminably long speech — 60 pages? 80 pages? — that John Galt just had to give along the way. I read it, but whoa.)

    When I was twenty, I read THE FOUNTAINHEAD. I was appalled at the ‘romance’ and totally certain that there wasn’t a single Harlequin Presents hero alive who had ever been so awful or a heroine so crazy. Those sex scenes were *disturbing*.

    I was hooked into the story both times, though AS was my favorite. Your analysis cracks me up, and I know there’s no way I’d ever read either of them again. But I have fond memories of Rearden Metal and the engine that stopped the world. 🙂


    1. Lynn the Raye Harris — I agree. As a young Swede, I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was deeply philosophical and interesting.

      Being all grown up and such, I look at it now and make non-grown-up faces.

      How are things?


      1. Things could be better if I’d realized my deadline was this close a bit earlier. I will be retreating into the writing cave for the next few weeks. My husband will have to throw me some bread and water every once in a while. 😉


    2. I’m an avid consumer of romance (both the Harlequin kind and the longer kind) and in Romancelandia, we would call both Howard and Dominique “TSTL” (Too Stupid To Live). The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were both wallbangers for me, even at 18 (although I was somewhat tricked into reading AS).

      I had a college prof who (perhaps by mandate) listed “Atlas Shrugged” as one of the optional additional readings, and said it should be done outside class and at home because “masturbation should be something done in private and alone.” College me started reading looking for dirty parts and being disappointed at no hanky-panky. Only 20-odd years later did I realize he was talking about the novel being Rand’s mental masturbation.


  6. I remember reading this novel back in college after hitting the bong far too hard and loving it. Interesting how perspective and age changes things.


  7. Okay, the link above still needs fixing.

    I suppose if you did A Tale of Two Cities, you’d tell Dickens to quit the monster run-on sentence and make his mind up already. Was it the best of times or what?


  8. Eek! Please fix the link to the blog in comment above! I’m such a typo-ing fool. It’s right here. I put a comma in for a period because it’s too hard to tell the difference at this font size.


  9. Oh my gawd this is so well done. I found this Objectivist Takedown on the Twitter, and I must say it is #epicwin.

    I can’t wait to see you do Atlas Shrugged, if you could stand reading one more page of Randiosity. Also my high schooler suggested you red-pen the first page of Huck Finn (great story but the grammar’s rather nonstandard). I’ll try to come up with a novel with a bad page one as opposed to just a merely bad novel; I read far too many of those. My book club just read Mona Simpson’s _A Regular Guy_ and we’re all WTF? This is supposed to be a great novel? She can’t even stick to one POV for more than two sentences! If this is literary stylistics, than at least impress me with how you well you broke the rules. (Answer: Not.)


  10. Once again, we are in essential agreement [the Red Pen and I – I think we might start something on the side]. I have a few slight differences, in that while I appreciate Hemingway (okay, actually, I adore Hemingway), there are limits to how much of that terse style I can take at once. The very idea of Rand attempting to communicate her heinously awful story and her radicalized “philosophy” in that style makes me want to find some brooches and do an Oedipus. Though, truthfully, the idea of reading Rand again has a similar effect.

    On to my point. Here I actually think she needs to strike a balance between the crazed prose that floods forth in some areas and the concise formulation of other areas. BECAUSE she is trying to sell us on her philosophy, I need to be somewhat engaged in the experience of [ick ick ick] the story, but not so immersed in detail that I miss her essential points.

    You allude to the love of purple prose in romance – especially historical romance – and there is something to that. Romance writers aim to steep their audience in the details, the flavor, the essence of the setting and the characters. Clothes do, after a fashion, make the man, so a detailed description may actually layer in characterization. Since character is the heart and soul of all romance, the use of more elaborate prose is, if not desirable, at least excusable.

    In the Hemingway oeuvre, the tight sentence structure and direct prose does multiple things. First it creates a manly distance between the character and the audience – not a disconnect, but a bit of space that says “I’m a manly man and I’m not doing any sissy new-age communicating, dammit!” Secondly, it creates subtle tension. Tension in every line. Expectation of what is to come. Which, given the manly subjects about which Hemingway writes, is perfectly apt. Third, and probably most important, the short, sharp sentences set the pace for reading Hemingway. You are not meant to meander through For Whom the Bell Tolls, you are meant to march through at a steady, fast clip in manly, martial fashion.

    Rand’s mix does nothing for the story. It neither draws the reader into the story nor creates a deliberate distance. It neither lays the foundations of character nor creates sustained tension. It neither mimics the slow-building pace of a relationship nor the brutal pace of a march. In short, in trying to do everything, it does nothing, and leaves the reader confused as to what to expect. I hate that.


    1. I love how individualism and self achievment are radicalized, while notions of altruism and state-ism are the new standard. Convenient redefinition.

      I too adore Hemingway and the short sentences with long meanings. To wrap any one author into a box and call there styles, lack there of, or combination there of right or wrong is trying to put a neat bow on the glorious complexity of life. Then again, classification and manipulation of others in all of its arrogant glory is part of what Rand warned against in her books…


  11. “There’s a weird mix of styles going on here. You get short, clipped sentences, tight and hard, with zero fatty modifiers. But then Ayn the Rand switches to long stretches of not only purple prose, but outright wackiness I expect from college sophomores writing flash fiction at three in the morning on the deadline day after hitting the bong FAR TOO HARD.”

    That quote needs to be required reading for any and everyone who wants to be a writer. You have my cudos, sir. I could not make it through reading the first page past the conflicting descriptions and pointless fluff.


    1. Rebecca the Murray,

      Thanks for the kind words. It was fun to do.

      How the hell are you — and are you really a zookeeper? That would be seven separate types of awesome.


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