Peter Orner's AM I ALONE HERE?: NOTES ON LIVING TO READ AND READING TO LIVE
I just finished reading a delightful book called Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live, by Peter Orner. It’s a series of essays and reflections stemming from the author’s reading life, which, as any good reading life should, often blurs in and out of real life—his father’s death, his ex-wife’s depression, his daughter, his own identity as an author and a human being. Living to read and reading to live. These things do go hand in hand.
Peter Orner is a Chicago native, though he’s lived outside of the Midwest for many years. His voice is warm, self-deprecating, funny, thoughtful, passionate. Good company, in short. There’s one passage in particular about the absurdities of being an Author (with a capital A) in our tech-heavy cultural climate that I thought I’d share, both because it’s hilarious, and because it says something serious, too, about the writing of fiction.
Here it is, an excerpt from Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner:
Not long ago, I attended another literary festival . . . and I happened to wander into a panel discussion called The Future of the Book as the Book. The prognosis for the book as the book, I learned, is inconclusive. A few actual physical books might be published in the future (as boutique-type items), but then again, they might not. It really depends. On what? Well, on certain variables. Like whether or not there are any physical bookstores or publishers left in the next few decades. Only one thing didn’t seem in doubt at all, and that is the future of the physical writer of these inconclusive books. A writer’s future, we were told, is directly tied to the successful deployment of a “vigorous online persona.” A writer, one panelist declared, who doesn’t personally reach out to readers via social media is DOA. End of story. Nothing to discuss.
This was alarming for several reasons. One is that I’ve tried social media. I’m never quite sure what to say. I’ve shared things my friends are doing. I reposted Brad Finkel’s picture with the caption Just back from a trip of a lifetime to Banff!!! [followed, radio and podcast listeners, by 3 exclamation points] This posting netted me: 14 likes. Is this because fourteen people approved of Brad’s trip to Banff, or his picture, or the number of exclamation points, or what? Or were they just, you know, supporting my support of Brad’s trip of a lifetime? This is confusing. I’m dating myself by the minute here. In any case, the point is I’ve also posted a few personal things, and some things about what I’m up to so-called professionally, in the overly optimistic belief that such posting might lead to an extra book sale or two. My sales number, I’ve been told, are on life support. Calling all Kansans, I’ll be appearing at the Barnes and Noble in Wichita tonight at 7 p.m. Love to see you all out there. Bring friends, uncles, aunts, parolees . . . But each time I’ve done so, I’ve been overcome by a dread. The impulse—now an industry, now a much-studied phenomenon—to spread any and all news about oneself far and wide has become soul-crushing. It makes me want to retreat to my garage with my (possible, it depends on certain variables) outmoded physical books and unfinished, handwritten manuscripts. But maybe the fact is, I’m just not all that good at being myself. I’ve come to see what people call social media (meaning what exactly?) is a skill like anything else. Some are talented at it; others less so. I’m a mediocre interior decorator also. Nor can I cook, play the piano, speak Italian, change the oil, dance, iron a shirt, or tell a reasonably funny joke. Also, and friends will attest to this, I never seem to understand any jokes anybody else tells, either.
And yet if I don’t communicate personally with readers, I’m DOA? End of story?
There is, though, a more significant issue at stake. The whole point of fiction has always been to forget about me. God only knows this is hard enough. But to paraphrase Welty, fiction is the grand art of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. There is something about the demand that fiction writers speak as themselves, outside their books, that feels like a violation of what Welty held to be sacred. Inventing characters, nonexistent people, and introducing them into an already overcrowded, indifferent world is an act of faith, one of the few acts of faith I’ve got left.
Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live was published just this fall by Catapult. You can find it wherever books are sold.