Peter Orner

3 posts

“Fiction Isn’t Machinery, It’s Alchemy.”

Peter Orner

Before I say a reluctant goodbye to Peter Orner’s book, Am I Alone Here?,¬†that has been such good company these past three days, I thought I’d share a few final quotes I marked in the book.

Six are from Orner himself, and three are ones he fished from Frank O’Connor’s book, The Lonely Voice (and boy, the writer’s voice is a lonely one, all right — especially if readers won’t buy and read his book).

“For a long time I thought reading would somehow make me a better writer. So I’d read in order to write. I’d justify the hours I spent with my feet up and call reading “my work.” Now I see how ludicrous this is. All the Chekhov in thirteen volumes won’t help me write a sentence that breathes. That comes from somewhere else, somewhere out in the world, where mothers die in car accidents accidents and daughters hide in pain. And yet I have come to the conclusion that reading keeps me alive, period. I wake to read and sleep so I can get up in the morning and read some more.”

“One thing I’m sure of, though, is that I’m drawn to certain stories because of their defiant refusal to do what I just tried to do, that is, explain themselves. Fiction isn’t machinery, it’s alchemy. Anybody who claims to shed complete light on the mechanisms by which fiction operates is peddling snake oil. A piece of fiction can have all the so-called essential elements, setting, character, plot, tension, conflict, and still be dead on the page that no amount of resuscitation would ever do any good.”

“Tolstoy, who (generally) adored Chekhov, once inferred that he might have been an even better writer if he had not been so dedicated a doctor. With all respect, Count, that’s bullshit. Chekhov’s being a doctor may well have been the key to how well he understood the connection between our ailing bodies and our ailing minds. To concern yourself with the hidden lives of others, including the long dead, especially at a time when you are trying to endure your own pain—is there a more generous act in life, in literature?”

“Stories fail if you read them only once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.”

“I once read that a reader is a person who lacks a critic’s complacency. I’ve always strived to be an uncomplacent reader, to retain a sense of wonder, even for stories I’ve read a dozen times. Sometimes I read a story and I think about it for hours, days, or, if I’m lucky, years. The thinking is the thing. The most I can give back to any story is a silence born of awe. But there are times, like these, when you want to say something, anything, if only to yourself and the wind in the trees.”

“It gets me every time. The way a story about characters, nonexistent people, pushes us back to our own, the people who do exist, who do walk the earth.”

And three quotes Peter Orner shares from Frank O’Connor’s book, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story:

“For the short-story writer there is no such thing as essential form. Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco.”

“The saddest thing about the short story is the eagerness with which those who write it best try to escape it.”

“There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”

 

The Humbling Beauty in Reading-About-Reading Books

am i alone here

Every writer is a reader, and every reader indulges himself now and then in a good “reading about reading” book.

This is where I’m at now as I amble through Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?¬†(The answer is, Clearly not, P.O.!)

The thing about reading-about-reading books is how expensive they can be. No, I don’t mean the price on the book itself (this one is a $16.95 paperback), I mean the books the author tempts you with.

Think of it this way. You = addict. Author = dealer. Recommended books = the goods.

And so easy, the way this book is set up! Each chapter begins with a picture of the book Orner is lauding at great length. All oxymoronic, considering the long praise is for short story collections, for the most part. Orner, a practitioner himself, frowns on the novel-love of the publishing industry and says, six ways to Sunday night, “What about the short story, that little shining city on a hill?”

Thus he adds to my list such must-see collections as Chekhov’s Selected Stories (but of course, when talking stories, one starts at Mecca), The Stories of Breece DJ Pancake, All Stories Are True (John Edgar Wideman), The Lonely Voice (Frank O’Connor), The Bride of the Innisfallen (Eudora Welty), Selected Stories (Robert Walser), The Burning Plain and Other Stories (Juan Rulfo), All the Days and Nights (William Maxwell), Cheating at Canasta (William Trevor), Collected Stories (Wright Morris), Dusk and Other Stories (James Salter), and Spirits and Others Stories (Richard Bausch).

This is an incomplete list, but if you count the pennies in your cart on Barnes & Noble, you’ll see you’re about 1,267 poem sales away from breaking even.

What’s even more daunting is how well-read authors of reading-about-reading books make you feel as a supposedly seasoned reader. On the list above, for instance, I’ve only read the Chekhov and the Pancake and I’ve never even heard of (until I listened now) Juan Rulfo.

Where have I been, one wonders? What have I been doing with my wastrel reading life, one cries? And how is it that I haven’t fully appreciated these short story masters as much as Orner has?

All good questions, but that’s the point. That’s why you buy a reading-about-reading book in the first place. When you’re done, you select a few of the recommended books that seem most intriguing to you by weighing the excerpts provided by the author and the commentary he adds. Then you buy them to see exactly what’s been going on here, right under your negligent nose all of these years.

And you can’t stop there, either. When writing about Pancake, Orner says, “Stories fail if you read them only once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.” Can’t you just feel your reading to-do list growing, like that 10-year-old kid of yours who, just yesterday, was accepted to a college?

Meanwhile, there’s pitiful me, the suddenly chastened “well-read” guy who hasn’t read much anything as described in Am I Alone Here?

Guilty as charged. But even though I haven’t read all of these authors, now I’ve at least read about all of these authors. Doesn’t that count for something? At least until I buy two or three of the collections Orner waxes rhapsodic about?

Yes, it does. And it must in a world where we can’t be too hard on ourselves, even as readers and especially as writers who read and realize that reading more begets writing more and writing better.

Besides, you have to console yourself, has it ever occurred to you that you’ve read a couple hundred books the author of this reading-about-reading book hasn’t?

Ah. Breathe in, breathe out. Reading is not a competition, thank God.

Chekhov’s Secret: Not a Gun on the Wall

chekhov

As is true with poetry, short stories are typically frowned upon by book publishers. To get a collection of short fiction accepted, you either have to be a well-known name or your stories have to be very, very (did I say “very”?) good.

This truth, as self-evident as Thomas Jefferson’s were supposed to be, struck me yesterday while reading Peter Orner’s collection, Maggie Brown and Other Stories. In one called “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,” Orner goes on an Anton Chekhov riff.

As I read parts of this story, I found myself replacing the word “story” with “poem” because, whether good old Chekhov knew it or not, a lot of his philosophy holds in both genres. In this particular story, the narrator wants to write about his friend, Len, and has had a novel in mind all along. Then suddenly, it strikes him. Len is a story-in-waiting, not a novel, and Chekhov is the key. Read along and see what I mean:

“All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells us, a story never ends. A story: lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don’t seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there. It’s your room again. But didn’t you feel a presence in the dark? The presence of someone you once knew? Someone you once loved? All these years I’ve been deluding myself, carrying around this folder as if one day it would grow covers and a binding. So simple, Len’s a story.”

Then the narrator decides to write his publisher, Little, Brown and Company, about his revelation:

“You say stories don’t sell, and God knows I have no reason to doubt you (I’ve seen the numbers on my story collections and they aren’t pretty; I know I’m basically a charity case), but don’t you see? It’s what Chekhov teaches. The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon. It’s not about word count or pages. That’s a smothered way of thinking. We’re talking about the quest for infinity here. Horizons can’t ever be reached no matter how many words you lard on a novel. The attempt at closure is inherently dishonest. But a story! One that ends but doesn’t end, that’s infinity, immortality, right there…”

A short story master, Orner found inspiration in an earlier master. The master. And I love how he puts it here: “The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon.”

I love even better how changing “story” to “poem” should make would-be poets realize that a poem’s ending cannot be a “full stop,” either. It must be a “horizon,” one that causes its reader to feel a certain resonance bringing both satisfaction and yearning.

Note, too, how Orner follows “full stop” with a semi-colon instead of a period. I particularly liked that touch, the semi-colon not quite being a full stop itself. The punctuation echoes the sentiment.

So, yes. Chekhov can teach practitioners of short writing—be they stories or poems—a thing or three. Think about that challenge the next time you sit down to write.

Hell with the Chekhovian gun on the wall that must be fired by the end. It’s the horizon that matters.