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1 hour ago, Michael Stuart Kelly said:

This is a propagandist form of storytelling and she did it well. I can't find the quote right now, but in discussing propaganda, Ayn Rand once said she was trained by the best, meaning people in Communist Russia. If I remember correctly, she was also discussing this in the context of fiction writing. So it is no slur to say she included propaganda in her fiction (like propaganda for capitalism). She did that on purpose.

Letters of Ayn Rand:

pg. 157:

“A story is not written to accomplish any purpose beyond itself. (Not even a propaganda story-and I’m the chief living writer of propaganda fiction, I think-at least I think I’m the only one who knows how to do it properly-and I still say that: the propaganda is not the purpose of the story.)”

Pg: 231: “I think I have written to you once that the art of integrating propaganda, that is, an abstract theme, with a concrete story, is the hardest of all arts. I honestly don’t know anyone who can do it at the moment-except myself.”

Pg: 387:

“Believe me, I am a good propagandist as you know, and I know how propaganda works.”

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"Even as people cry for the subversive and revolutionary trope of woke ideas taking over Star Wars, they will realize that the seed of this was, in many respects, an aspect of the story all along."

This line from the video reminds me of Curtis Yarvin's hypotheses of the entropic nature of power in partial states. Most people don't notice the connection between leftism now and the leftism of the past, because that past leftism is so far to the right by today's standards.


Anyway, I just wanted to comment on storytelling as I'm trying to learn more about it myself. I had an interesting thought that the character/story relationship is very much like the substance vs form problem of ancient philosophy. The character is part of the story, but a story is also part of a person (you can't exist without doing something, and like the Rush song... even if you do nothing that's still what you did).


Form vs substance also relates to the whole bottom up vs top down vacillation in how we approach productive thought. If you were to build a house, would you think of the form first, or the material? Rand said something about function dictating the form of Roark's projects. However, if you have decided to make a house, you already have an extremely abstract form as your starting point. Maybe you decided to build a house after finding some cheap materials... that's a possibility. Either way, by the time you are finished you will have bounced back between form and substance many, many times. And you will, hopefully, approach perfection, but eventually you will have to settle so that you can have a finished project.


I was thinking to start a story, start with a character. They say characters should drive plot, and not the other way around. I don't know, if you are looking at it the right way, the two are kind of inseparable. Did you really start with a hero, or did you start with a world that needs saving?

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  • 8 months later...

I wrote this on another thread and it also belongs here.

2 minutes ago, Michael Stuart Kelly said:

Last night I finished the last of the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke (audiobooks--they are all on Scribd). There are 23 of them. I started the first about 6 months ago.

In the beginning, I didn't like the style or the main character. And Clete (Dave's sidekick) had not yet turned into the one-man random wrecking ball service against  the bad guys he later became. (Some of that stuff got hilarious, too. Including his innocent cluelessness about what he had just done. Burke in one of the books described Clete as a junkyard falling down a stairway. :) )


As I read into the series, I think my fiction writing matured, although I won't know for sure until I put my learning down on paper  in practice. But I'm not worried. This exposure pushed me way out of the realm of the beginner. It makes me feel competent whereas before, I felt anxiety when I worked on a story.

For a concrete example, I feel differently about first-person narrative writing than I did before. The entire series is in first person except when Burke moves the point-of-view to another character. Then it goes into third person. I saw from this series many examples how it's OK to shine the introspection light on the dark corners of the hero's mind as the story unfolds to show his (or her) inner struggles. When tied to the main themes, this made for real satisfaction at the end when Dave triumphs or finds peace (even if only temporary) where there was once unease.

Also, there are the long descriptions. In settings, long descriptions are a no-no these days. And in the early books, they actually were too long and too boring. But Burke's way of describing the Louisiana he is trying to hold on to, and by extension, the good side of the old South, is like small poems injected into the narrative. Very beautiful. Incidentally, I've seen him interviewed by Lee Child and other mainstream thriller writers. They all praise his narrative descriptions and they all praise his style.

And they are right. Burke is one hell of a writer. (As an aside, I did not find anything from Bidinotto on James Lee Burke. I mention this because Bidinotto offers extensive praise of many modern thriller writers. But he resists going to the wells of inspiration they go to, the wells from which they spring, so to speak. He praises them only in Rand-oriented terms. I think this is a mistake as it misidentifies what they set for themselves as their creative tasks.)


Plot-wise, this is where I got enormous value. Burke makes reference to classical literature all the time, including many Biblical references. His form of plotting is to graft a murder mystery-thriller outline onto the main events of a classical tale like Beowolf, then let his characters take it from there.

What I mean by murder mystery-thriller outline is this: Innocent victim(s) is killed, then the good guy(s) tries to figure out who did it and chase them down to punish them. And the bad guys are resilient, powerful, resourceful, cunning as all hell, and so on.

The interwoven main events of classical plots provide the platform for unfolding his themes, symbolism, and mythic universality of the stories. This makes plotlines feel a bit meandering at times, but I've grown to like this form a lot. Burke himself talked about this in some YouTube video or other. And he mentioned that as the story grows while he's writing (he's mostly a pantser), he ends up screwing up the plot points of the classical plots. His characters just don't want to go there after a while. :) I think the issue is the specific narrative questions that arise. (A narrative question is what the reader wants answered, not necessarily what a character wants answered.)


For people with a Randian approach, Burke may not shine as a presenter of heroes until it becomes clear he gives his heroes a quirk most heroes don't have. This goes for both Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel. And just to be sure this is clear, Burke spells it out explicitly in his later books by having Dave tell Clete he doesn't see his own good and, in other situations, Clete telling Dave that he's like this.

These heroes are virtuous--virtuous to a fault at times--and see the same virtues they practice in others, but they just don't see such virtue in themselves enough to articulate it in words. They certainly see it when it's time to act. But when it gets time to put their own words to it, they are always trying to figure out how to improve and always beating themselves up when they succumb to different temptations, like Dave's alcoholism, Clete's need to get involved with women who damage him, or when the urge to lash out violently at the bad guys overpowers them so much, they fall outside good-guy lines.

Also, the people who serve as the innocent victims are often poor and from the underground culture. But not always. Burke's moral judgments are against bullying, rich or poor. 

I can't find fault with this form of hero character. Rand-wise, I think he's the poor cousin of a typical Randian hero, but he's still a hero. (I don't care what Rand said about the fly on a painting of a gorgeous woman being evil.) This goes for the different women heroes throughout the books, too.


On the negative side, Burke includes ghost stories, of all things. Robicheaux at times, sees the ghosts of long-dead Confederate soldiers in the mist of the bayou. He also sees people he's loved and they talk to him until he snaps out of it. In several of the books, he sees different versions of the devil, some of whom strive for redemption as they go about their killing, destruction and mayhem. (He went way overboard in the last book, A Private Cathedral, which had a friggin' phantom ship from ancient Greek times sailing in and out of the story with a grim reaper kind of character collecting souls to put on it. This one is my least favorite book of his.)

For Rand-people, going through this series is an excellent exercise in checking certain premises about creative writing, especially ones coming from Rand that I believe cause writer's block--at least they did for me. (I've written about this elsewhere.) This is not a swipe at Rand. It's merely an observation of how to step around a pitfall for novices or more advanced writers who are stuck. Of course, she provides a lot of great writing advice along with the pitfalls.


After this effort of reading the entire series, I can say the following with certainty. It took me a while to get to know Burke's characters and some of his literary techniques. But now that I do, I would never give them up. I can't imagine not knowing these characters nor how Burke presents them.


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Here is an extra comment on my post above.

Rand said all knowledge is contextual. I agree with this. And if the identification is contextual, what about the evaluation? It has to be contextual, too, right?

This goes for art, which in Rand's view deals with normative abstractions.

And, to me, this context rule even applies to Rand's blast of the portrait of a beautiful lady with a fly on it that I used for a side-comment. In the context Rand presented the painting, sure the fly is a purposeful demeaning of the lady, the painting, and even the aesthetic experience of looking at it in a museum.

But could there be a context where the meaning would be opposite? I can come up with several, but the following is all one needs.

Suppose this painting were the fifth or sixth in a series where the first painting showed the lady in awful decrepit surroundings with a large number of flies on it. And each ensuing painting showed improvements in the lady with a diminishing number of flies on the painting--until the last one, which has the lady presented as beautiful and has only one fly on it. Moreover, there is a spot marked out for a painting to the right of it, but no painting on it, as if to invite the viewer to fill it in with his or her imagination.

Boom. Not evil at all.

Instead, it shows growth toward both beauty and purity.

Due to context, I believe the characters Burke came up with (Dave and Clete and others) are extremely heroic. If they were transposed out of Louisiana's Big Easy (or Whore of Babylon region), they might not come off as heroes, but instead, as clueless rubes trying to be virtuous and not quite pulling it off. Where could this be? How about in a Shakespearean theater environment? Or high tech? Or working in management at a bank? Or any number of places?

The ruling Randian aesthetic question is the following. Would I, the reader, want to be like Dave or Clete? When I add context, like if I were living in their environment, hell yes, I would want to be like them. Warts and all. 

For a Randian version, think about The Fountainhead and Roark's construction worker friend, Mike Donnigan, who was as ugly as sin and gruff.


Flaws do not equal evil.

Context, not dogma, gives meaning to flaws.


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I don't know of a fly, Michael. The passage I imagine you mean reads: "Now consider the painting described at the start of this discussion. The cold sore on the lips of a beautiful woman, which would be insignificant in real life, acquires a monstrous metaphysical significance by virtue of being included in a painting....[...] Art and Sense of Life.

In short, why deliberately defile beauty?

That recalls for me many artists' and screen writers' self-ironic mockery of anything good, heroic and beautiful in mankind. In a word, "naturalism", a denial of the volitional mind. I've read all those authors you mention and they are very good. Their characters are at least depicted as slightly flawed romantic figures, who know their opponents as vile people and get to defeat them. Not: as nothing particularly virtuous separating them, the moral relativism, like much of movie and fictional art (and contemporary culture, uncoincidentally) has it. 

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You are right. It's a cold sore. 

I misremembered this because at the time I read that passage for the first time, I actually saw a painting of a beautiful woman with a fly glued onto the painting. This is not the first time I have fucked up that passage. :) 

My point still stands, though. If you saw Rand's imagined painting within a series of painting of a person who was horribly sick at first and getting better with each painting, the meaning changes.


Besides, art is far more than depicting beauty (or the perfect man). When depicting beauty is the context, I agree with Rand. When it is not, I have to look at the nature of the context to see how to evaluate the thing correctly.

Identifying context is part of identifying an entity. And no one can evaluate something correctly unless they identify it correctly first.


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