What, then, went wrong? How could the woman who gave me Gail Wynand give me this? Rand answers the question herself, in the notes for Atlas Shrugged (which was originally to be called “The Strike”):
The Strike is to be a much more “social” novel than The Fountainhead. The Fountainhead was about “individualism and collectivism within man’s soul”; it showed the nature and function of the creator and the second-hander. . . . Their relations to each other — which is society, men in relation to men — were secondary, an unavoidable, direct consequence of Roark set against Toohey. But it is not the theme.
Now, it is this relation that must be the theme. . . .
. . . I set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers, and how viciously it treats them.
What I think is that because The Fountainhead is not primarily a social novel — because Rand was concerned primarily with presenting the ideal man’s soul — she looked into herself and gave expression to the finest things she found. She did this by imprinting them on her fictional landscape, which is why even the villains of The Fountainhead possess a measure of dignity and humanity. But in Atlas Shrugged Rand instead looked out and showed us the world of men as she sees them. And she sees them viciously.
There is so much to be said against Rand as an artist. There is the inept dialogue — characters begin a great many sentences by shouting each other’s names or saying “You know”; the heroes speak, every one of them, in exactly the same voice; the averagely intelligent advance the plot by blurting out their secrets. There is the Girl Scout banality of Atlas Shrugged’s heroine, who seems to have escaped from the young-adult section. There is the preposterous omnicompetence of the heroes, equally at home on the Harvard faculty or in a Vin Diesel movie, and the endless gushing about their exalted feelings, Rand’s attempt to steal with treacle what she has not earned with character development. There is that editorial discipline which gave us John Galt’s speech.
I don’t care. I don’t require of my artists that they be perfect craftsmen; I require that they inspire me. What is sad to me about Rand is that she could, but that the creator of Gail Wynand could create only one; that she could no longer imagine him when she looked out at mankind; that what she showed us instead was her need to reassure herself, in terms frankly delusional, of her superiority to it.
There is a desperately sad moment in The Fountainhead when Keating, who originally wanted to be a painter and upon the collapse of his career has acquired an easel, offers his canvases to Roark and asks — though he cannot say the words — whether they’re any good.
“It’s too late, Peter,” [Roark] said gently.
Keating nodded. “Guess I . . . knew that.”
When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.
This is the feeling that stopped me at the gas chamber. I cannot damn Ayn Rand, and for the too few hours of deep inspiration she offered me, I give my thanks. But it got too painful to look any longer, and so, exercising the right of any self-interested reader, I simply closed the book.
— Jason Lee Steorts is managing editor of National Review.