What is Atlas Shrugged?
If you have to ask, you’ve missed the most influential book written in the previous century. Atlas Shrugged, written by Ayn Rand, is a treatise on the great virtue in private ambition. It removes the stigma from ambition and greed, instead of calling them values that make the world a better place.
However, to explain the value of private ambition, Rand has to create an enemy. This means she has to create someone who believes private ambition is a great evil. And who better can embody this idea than a bunch of incompetent hacks in the government
Calling Atlas Shrugged political is an understatement. In terms of sheer popularity, Rand’s writings challenge those of Karl Marx himself. All the solutions Marx espoused, such as public ownership and the end of individualism are dystopian scenarios for Rand.
The political tone of Atlas Shrugged makes it an anathema to a certain group of people with a particular ideology. However, dismissing Rand’s magnum opus on political grounds is short-sighted. Gore Vidal called the book ‘perfect in its immorality’, and it didn’t matter.
The book inspired a generation of Fortune 500 CEOs who read the book in college and took one message to heart – public good and private ambition are not in conflict. The message attracted them because it went against everything public intellectuals, politicians, and other kinds of snake oil salesmen were selling.
However, we are not here to debate the political ideology Rand is espousing. Instead, we attempt to understand why Atlas Shrugged is more successful than others.
The Power of Mystery
Atlas Shrugged is a very political novel, but at its heart, it is a mystery. The first line of the book, ‘who is John Galt’, becomes a phrase which is repeated throughout the book without any purpose.
We also see successful and competent businessmen disappearing in the first and second parts of the book without any reason. This happens while our two protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden try to survive the schemes hatched by lesser men.
On this platform, we have often talked about the essential aspect of any story. To make someone read anything, writers first have to write something interesting. Writers can put in place all kinds of writing formulas and rules they learn, but if their story is not interesting, nobody will read what they write.
Many writers talk about a higher purpose of writing. Maybe it’s related to a social cause they are discussing in their novel. Maybe it’s is something else they feel strongly about. Generally, many writers lament about their low readership and blame readers for not caring enough about the social cause they’re addressing. However, it is the job of the writer to write something interesting.
There are plenty of examples of books that address a social cause and manage to find a phenomenal audience as well. Kite Runner is a perfect example of the same.
Rand doesn’t fall into the trap of such writers and uses mystery as a tool to keep the readers hooked. Using mystery also helps in other ways. Readers who are not exactly interested in the political values the book is espousing can read it as a mystery thriller. This way, Rand managed to attract a large audience to her work.
The Value of Extremes
To make her point, Rand cannot choose characters that are complex and confused. At every point in the book, readers are aware of the two sides fighting each other. The ideology of each is known. Rand doesn’t stop here and paints one side as incompetent and villainous.
Generally, writers like working on stories and characters which don’t fit a binary mold. Even if they do create a story with two warring factions, they don’t use squeaky clean characters who don’t face any kind of moral bankruptcy or grievance.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand doesn’t try to create complex characters. She takes values she considers superior and uses them to create her two protagonists. Next, she takes the values which stand against her ideology and uses them to create her antagonists.
In essence, Rand polarizes her story and forces readers to relate to her point of view. She places her protagonists in the extreme ‘good’ category and her antagonists in the extreme ‘bad’. While this generally makes for a boring story, Rand is able to keep things interesting by shacking her hero and heroine.
Both Dagny and Hank, the protagonists, rarely attempt to take on their enemies directly. They are more concerned with making a profit and running their respective businesses. Furthermore, they silently take barbs coming their way and never respond with the same passionate intensity.
This imbalance is enough to keep readers interested in the story. Many critics of Rand argue her book’s extreme take on some issues is misleading. However, the use of extremes is arguably a stroke of genius on Rand’s part. In using extremes, Rand is able to make her point more clearly and leave readers under no doubt as to what she’s trying to explain.
The Advantage of Being Distinct
Before and after Atlas Shrugged, there are a very few books which articulate a view of a similar nature. In making a case for personal ambition and rejecting public intellectually, Atlas Shrugged stands alone.
The literary world rarely has books that counter much of what intellectuals say. In going against the grain, Rand and her book become the lone competitor to the ideas she stands against.
In simple words, Rand occupies a space in the literary world that is empty. Writers rarely try to question the conventional wisdom spread by intellectuals. This creates an imbalance and Rand’s work works as a great stabilizing force.
There is a great writing lesson here as well. Writers should never feel their ideas are bad because most smart people reject it. If they can write a story and demonstrate the power of their ideas over a novel, they should do it.
Going against the mainstream has its advantages. The success of Rand is an example of the same.
Atlas Shrugged is a politically charged novel. However, Rand manages to attract readers not just because of its political value.
While the writing is terrific and Rand displays qualities synonymous with Russian novelists, it is the quality of her storytelling which helps make her book a generational classic.
Some writers may not like Atlas Shrugged because they disagree with its political dogma. I can understand this problem. However, I urge writers to read the book as a learning experience.
Not reading a book because it discusses contrarian ideas is intellectually dishonest. It is not something writers should do, especially because the act of writing and reading is based on discovering new ideas, and regurgitating old ones.