There is no "I" in the Ayn Rand Institute
Oops, maybe I was wrong about that. This is another photo of mine from the Los Angeles Times Festival of books, but I took it and posted it because I recently attended a reading given by Tobias Wolff at venerable Kepler's Books to promote his new short story collection, Our Story Begins.
Wolff and I have a little history. About the time his first published short story, "Smokers," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1976, I was enrolled in a creative writing class of his at Stanford. My idea was to get (what I thought would be) easy credits, but as this recent article in the Stanford Alumni Magazine describes, I ended up being galvanized into writing fiction in the vein of Raymond Chandler.
The event at Kepler's was the first time I'd seen Wolff since the class and it was a real thrill to talk with him--both because I'm a huge fan of his work and because so much water has passed under the bridge since we last met. I had him inscribe a copy of Our Story Begins as well as a first edition I had of his best known memoir, This Boy's Life. I also had my wife take a picture of us together, but this one of him alone came out much better (due to my goofy look) so I'll spare your sensibilities and post it instead.
But back to Ayn Rand, which is how I started this post. During the Q&A at Kepler's, I asked Wolff about his portrayal of Rand in his novel Old School. Over the years I've been been amazed by the strange attraction her work exerts over people, including some very good friends of mine, so I was interested to hear the back story for including Rand as a character in the novel. The question prompted him to describe his own initial fascination with her work and her philosophy and--much like the main character in the novel--his ultimate disillusionment with same.
To give you a flavor of the evolution in thinking the narrator goes through, after first reading Rand he concludes, "I was discovering the force of my will. . . . I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires--nothing between me and greatness itself--but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability."
It's only after Rand criticizes Hemingway--another of the narrator's heroes--as being a creator of "weak, defeated people" that he rereads Hemingway and finds Rand's writing and attitude of disdain for flawed or disadvantaged people to be unattractive and lacking in empathy.
But given that Rand is the co-author of a collection of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness perhaps that's not such a surprising conclusion. It's not for nothing that there are I's in the Ayn Rand Institute.