Substance over Style

The kindle recently gifted to me has turned out to be a treasure trove of goodies, thanks to the books put on it by the previous owner. So I have found myself reading work I would otherwise never have considered. Such a book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

I haven’t read the blurb of this novel but I’m sure it would have put me off. A story about architects set in the USA in the 1930s? How dull can you get? Naturally I’d heard of Ayn Rand but her name was the sum total of what I knew about her. I started reading her novel with every expectation of being unable to get through the first chapter.

As I worked my way through The Fountainhead, I wondered how it would fare if subjected to the editing process today. It bristles with filtering words and the POV changes from paragraph to paragraph. While I’m comfortable with the latter, remembering the days of the omniscient third-person narrator, what I did struggle with was the dialogue. Because of a lack of dialogue tags at times there were places where I couldn’t work out who was speaking. Of course, some of the dialogue was baffling anyway and some read like a dissertation for a sociology degree, but I decided my lack of comprehension was probably my fault not the author’s. (Unlike me, she had a towering intellect!). And was the novel wordy? Was Hamlet the Prince of Denmark?

But did I like it? Hell, yes! I couldn’t put it down. Forget the style, this is all about substance. The images are astonishing. While I read about buildings being constructed, I could see the metal skeletons of skyscrapers lifting their limbs to the sky. I could feel concrete and brick dust beneath my fingers. It was gritty realism with real grit. To make a reader feel texture as well as see it is the mark of a great writer.

Are the characters likeable? Nope! They are perverse, dark, exasperating, tortured, sadomasochistic, Machiavellian, corrupt, self-serving, psychotic players on the stage of laissez-faire capitalism, and yet all are believable and fascinating. They are painfully three-dimensional. Their struggles are compelling, their angst profound, their machinations despicable. I wanted the (very flawed) protagonist, Howard Roark, to succeed while praying the rest of the characters got their comeuppance as soon as possible.

So what we have here is a conflict between style and substance. Style changes like any other fashion but there’s no substitute for compelling substance. If like Ayn Rand you can tell a riveting story with believable characters, if you can make the reader want to know what happens next, don’t agonise over style. Style can be fixed. Style should never be more important than substance.

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