John Williams: Stoner

Much has already been made of the unexpected return of Stoner, with reviews generally focussed on the book as “Lazarus literature”. First published in 1965, Stoner gently sold 2,000 copies and then promptly went out of print, re-appearing now and again without significant sales.

Then, in 2011, as the story goes, a translation into French by Anna Gavalda spurred new interest in Europe. Stoner was named 2013 book of the year by Waterstones; Tom Hanks was cited as a fan; Bret Easton Ellis referenced the book on Twitter; the dreaded PR machine cranked into motion, and “the Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of” may have become better known than actually read. Now follows a triumphant 50th anniversary hardback edition, suggesting perhaps there is no escape.

Yet this is a book where nothing much happens – the plot, tracing the arc of one man’s life (academic William Stoner) is minimal, and there’s no breakthrough in technique or style, so the back-story turns out to be more about the resurgence of a book than its’ contents. Sadly Stoner’s author, John Williams, died in 1994, but in itself this is no different to musicians becoming more “successful” after their demise. Posthumous success is not particularly interesting, despite commonly being miscast as “irony”; it’s not ironic at all, and success would undoubtedly have been more interesting if Williams were alive to enjoy it.

As for being a stoner, don’t expect a giddy tale of pot-addled kids running around campus, or a post-modern psychedelic satire. With a minimal plot and an almost unrelieved narrative, this is austere, direct writing. There’s a distinct lack of American aspiration and optimism: in Stoner’s claustrophobic world, things either stay the same or simply get worse. Indeed, the opening additional correspondence between author and agent contained in this special edition makes it clear that this is the point, it’s a novel about “a man who finds no meaning in the world or himself, but who does find meaning and a kind of victory in the honest and dogged pursuit of his profession.” On the face of it, as Williams wryly suggests, “it does not sound so exciting as it will be in fact”, and its theme to the average reader “could well be depressing”.

Depressing perhaps, but it’s difficult to say that Stoner is “exciting” in the ordinary meaning; as Julian Barnes has pointed out, it’s a “true reader’s novel, in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study”. Ultimately this is because the novel is self-contained and well written; the clear prose is a good match for the hermetically sealed academic environment. However, the narrow focus is easy to criticise: significant outside events (two world wars) only distantly register in the central characters’ lives. Whilst this is purposeful, some may find the lack of engagement with the outside world frustrating.

The dreamy tone to the novel comes from a noticeable disinterest in material values, with Stoner continuing to fiddle around in obscure medievalism, the institutionalism of his employer university providing a soft cushion. According to Williams, it was important to keep tradition alive on the basis that it was in itself “civilization”, but yet it’s difficult to be inspired by Stoner’s university life, even in contrast to his previous back-breaking work.

The dilemma is whether we have any sympathy for Stoner’s unrelenting stoicism in the face of personal disappointment. A modern reader may only appreciate Stoner if he or she has some tolerance and sympathy for a significant degree of stasis. Despite a strong work ethic learnt from hard years on his parent’s farm, Stoner is an unconvincing hero (and more of an anti-hero); his conversion to literature when struggling to elucidate Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet is unimpressive; his move into teaching is prompted by another member of the faculty; and his love affair only gets going when Katherine forces the issue.

Just like Hamlet, Stoner fails to act or deal with any of the difficulties he encounters in life; his long-running feud with another academic is simply pushed to one side for years upon end; he lets his relationship with his daughter drift because of his dogmatic wife; he concedes defeat in love because of his unwillingness to manage the effects of living outside convention. Alpha readers may struggle to be patient with such a non-dynamic character, and the terse prose allows for little humour. It may be an unfair comparison, but 11 years before Stoner was published, Kingsley Amis’ campus novel Lucky Jim had them rolling in the aisles with laughter at academic life.

However, this very dilemma (over whether the reader can find any sympathy for the main character) makes Stoner a satisfying, rich novel, and intensifies what Williams terms as the “drama of inner versus outer values”; readers are well aware that it’s possible to have a rich inner life running at odds with whatever public disasters we are facing. As such, this novel may be an unfashionable proposition, for (as Steve Almond has suggested) the importance of private behaviour has diminished in today’s “culture of personality”, in which the exalted social role is that of performer. Stoner as a character is masterfully self-restrained and dignified in spite of the histrionics of his neurotic wife. By putting these two contrasting characters in close proximity, Williams seems to be promoting a sober aesthetic, its esteemed qualities akin to something like an Edward Hopper painting – still, quiet and blue.

That is not to say that there is no drama. One of Stoner’s most intense moments is an oral panel examination of a difficult student, and Williams prolongs the agony through some tense and well-paced dialogue. Difficult domestic scenes between Stoner and his wife are also deftly handled; according to the interesting new correspondence contained in this edition, we learn that Williams re-wrote much of the novel to ensure her character was fully “explained”. However the characterisation is certainly of its’ era: Stoner’s wife is the product of a pre-feminist world, and two of Stoner’s two adversaries are given physical disfigurements to match their personalities.

Stoner may have rebound out of obscurity, but critics have barely commented on some of the similarities (or disparities) between the lives of author and fictional anti-hero; Williams had a farming background himself, and became a professor of literature, but actively enlisted in the US Army Air Force for World War II, albeit reluctantly. Stoner, however, chooses not to sign up, realising he has little to offer and “little within”, but as one of the characters notes, he is doomed anyway.

It would be interesting to know if Williams considered his now most famous character a coward, but regrettably it’s too late for an answer; everyone loves you when you’re dead, but there’s a definitive advantage to having our authors alive. It’s great that Stoner is in print, but it can only be an educated guess that Williams would be bemused by the hype.




Stoner, the 50th Anniversary Edition

Publisher: New York Review of Books
Publication date: NOV 2015