Ayn Rand's novels blend two distinct genres. She fits squarely into the tradition of the Russian philosophical novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. But she is also a plot-rich Romantic in the tradition of Victor Hugo.
Some standard features of the Russian approach:
1. Characters embody philosophical positions.
2. The plot explores the implications of these philosophies on the characters' lives.
3. The conclusion of the novel vindicates the current philosophical position of the author.
Formulaic? If so, it's an awesome formula: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Resurrection, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and Notes from the Underground are only the beginning. In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, Ivan embodies idealistic atheism, Alyosha earnest Orthodox Christianity, Dmitri unreflective pragmatism, and Smerdyakov nihilism. The murder of the sons' father tests their convictions. And (spoiler!) the revelation that Smerdyakov is the murderer ultimately discredits not only his nihilism, but Ivan's idealistic atheism, for the latter paves the way for the former.
If she had written only We the Living, Rand would probably now be hailed as one of the lesser 20th-century descendants of Dostoyevsky. Its characters embody idealistic Communism, cynical Communism, defiant individualism, and despairing individualism. But then she up and wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged which are, by the standards of the Russian philosophical tradition, far better. The character's philosophies are more interesting, the plot pits them against each other more effectively, and the concluding epiphanies are more compelling (especially in Atlas).
Critics often complain that Rand's philosophical villains are straw men. Hardly. Even in Atlas Shrugged, where this charge is most justified, Robert Stadler is a powerful voice for amoral cooperation with the status quo. In any case, the straw man charge can be levied against even Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Neither created an unconflicted, virtuous atheist to pit against his saintly Christians. If you're going to enjoy any of these novels, you have to say "artistic license" and go with the flow.
When you measure Rand's against her Russian peer group, she is among the masters. But this understates her artistic achievement because she simultaneously works in another tradition: 19th-century Romanticism exemplified by Victor Hugo.
Some standard features of the Romantic approach:
1. The characters are larger-than-life.
2. The plots are imaginative.
3. The plots are carefully crafted puzzles, unpredictable in advance, but cleanly logical in hindsight.
In Les Miserables, of course, you've got Jean Valjean, the pure-of-heart fugitive, Javert, the incorruptible and tireless cop, Enjolras, the fearless student radical, and Thenardier, the sadistic crook. Javert pursues Valjean through a series of covers, until they fall smack in the middle of a student revolt led by Enjolras. Piece after piece falls into place, so Valjean finally gets his chance to kill Javert. But he spares his life instead. The musical captures the moment beautifully:
Once a thief, forever a thief
What you want you always steal!
You would trade your life for mine.
Yes, Valjean, you want a deal!
Shoot me now for all I care!
If you let me go, beware,
You'll still answer to Javert!
You are wrong, and always have been wrong.
I'm a man, no worse than any man.
You are free, and there are no conditions,
No bargains or petitions.
There's nothing that I blame you for.
You've done your duty, nothing more.
I love Victor Hugo, and even if he's not for you, it's hard not to admire the craftsmanship. Dramatic situations and dramatic characters stitched seamlessly together - it's not easy.
When you put Ayn Rand beside Victor Hugo, however, the student is the master. Rand out-Hugos Hugo. For starters, her characters are more colorful. Remember the advertising copy for Atlas Shrugged?
You will discover why a productive genius became a worthless playboy... why a great steel industrialist was working for his own destruction... why a philosopher became a pirate... why a composer gave up his career on the night of his triumph... why a beautiful woman who ran a transcontinental railroad fell in love with the man she had sworn to kill.
The plot of Atlas Shrugged is likewise more imaginative than anything Hugo cooked up. A world-wide strike of the men of the mind against the welfare state? I'll take that over The Hunchback of Notre Dame any day.
Her craftsmanship is better too. Hugo is full of improbable coincidences. Rand studiously avoids them. Rearden doesn't just happen to meet Ragnar, the philosopher who became a pirate. Ragnar tracks him down to give him a bar of gold. Why? Well, there's a perfectly logical explanation...
If you hate Rand's style, I probably can't talk you into enjoyment. Tyler Cowen assures me that Dickens' Bleak House is great. It probably is. But Dickens' sentences repel me, so I'll have to take Tyler's word for it.
But I suspect that the main reason many thinkers I respect don't enjoy Rand's fiction is that - even though they like one or both of the genres she exemplifies - they can't bring themselves to judge her by the standards of those genres. If they did, the worst they could say about her would be "Pretty damn good."