It’s the time of year for the “Best of” the Year Lists, and cropping up on many of 2013’s literary selections is Stoner by John Williams. The surprising thing about this book is that it is already fifty years old. Perhaps also surprising is that it has nothing at all to do with smoking weed. The third rather surprising aspect of Stoner’s belated success is that it is a quintessentially American tale, with a quintessentially American anti-hero, yet it does not appear to have yet seduced its home readership, as it has the Europeans. It’s the book everyone is talking about, it’s the book everyone is buying – except those who are really best equipped to empathise with it. The biggest (and one of the only remaining) book chains in the UK, Waterstones, has named it Book of the Year.
Julian Barnes, celebrated writer and Man Booker winner, who had never before heard of the book or its author, has expressed his puzzlement that what he calls “a true reader’s novel, in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study” has not scored a home run in the US. Among his literary friends in the States has come a qualified reaction. One theory for this could be the tone of quiet disappointment, an un-American quality? Tom Hanks and Bret Easton Ellis stand out as being vociferous in their praise. It is possible that the long slow fuse this publication has lit, sparking its way now across France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Israel, making its way into China, may still come to ignite in its place of birth.
Morris Dickstein in the New York Times Book Review, would champion that. He called it “a perfect novel” and said that it was “so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.”
From the first sentence, Stoner is has a solemn gravitas and it begins to strike minor chords. There is the stirring sense of very deep and profound human sorrow. The author’s own story is not dissimilar to his protagonist’s, William Stoner. John Williams was also from a humble, rural background (in East Texas) and he rose to nothing much. He became a self-effacing and three-time novelist and teacher, pretty much ignored and forgotten in his own lifetime. When Stoner was published in 1965 it sold 2,000 copies. Not a disgraceful amount but not enough to gain him any ground. The chances of such a book getting published in today’s aggressive climate is almost zero. It did get reviewed, but perhaps it was “damned with faint praise”, and then it gently faded away into obscurity. Until now.
Vintage re-issued an edition in 2003 yet this too made little impact. This is despite such luminaries as CP Snow having repeatedly asked over the years “Why is this book not better known?” The answer seemed to come, nobody can quite tell from where, when they brought it out again in 2012. This time, mostly via word of mouth, it seemed to take off. What in the digital world would be called “going viral.” Word of mouth continued to push it into global consciousness and into readers hands. Vintage, in a clever promotional tactic, inserted the teaser of the first chapter into the back of The Great Gatsby – re-issued on the strength of the new movie. Ironically, Stoner was then piggybacking onto a book that had also emerged to a largely indifferent reception.
So what is it about Stoner that has generated all this belated respect? It is an uncomplicated and unexceptional tale in one way. A farm boy with no ambition, and no horizons beyond the bounds of the field he tills is sent away to agricultural college. His uneducated parents scrimp to do this, in the expectation he will come back and take over the plot of land which is all they have ever had. He works hard at his classes and pays his way as laborer with relatives. There is little light, little joy. But something happens to William Stoner when he hears Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet in an English literature class. He can’t even begin to know what it is, but he realizes his life has changed forever. He has found his purpose. In one of the novel’s most tender and truly heartbreaking sections, his parents, when they come to his graduation, accept this. They go back to the patch of dust and he stays. To study, to teach.
Stoner undergoes an awkward courtship and marries. It is all dreadfully, hideously, unhappy. The one child of the union is his bliss, but she is turned against him. He takes solace in a love affair, tragically doomed for both partners. He hardly ever leaves the confines of the University of Missouri campus. Even there, he is far from protected. Implicated in internecine battles, power struggles, games he does not intend to play, he abides it all. This fatal lack of ambition in him from the outset means he never rises above the tenure of assistant professor.Two world wars come and go. He does not go to the front, he stays, he teaches his students, he gets overlooked for promotion. This achingly dull lifetime is illuminated in every fine detail, every nuance, every aspect. Eventually his one book is published. He dies.
It is a hero’s journey but not in the classical sense of obstacles overcome. What makes it so unbearably moving, almost searingly painful, is difficult to define. Reading Stoner is like an act of mourning. Some critics have said it is a victory for literature itself. Perhaps its power is in its dignity. Both the author and his protagonist, in retrospect, appear to be tragic exponents of what is means to be human. Stoner had neither much happiness, much love, nor fame, nor even much in the way of friendship to survive with. But he lived his life.
It feels close to “life’s true sadness” says Julian Barnes. He concludes it is neither minor nor great, but it is definitely, as Williams described it himself, in a letter to his agent, “substantially good.” American readers are urged to find out for themselves. And to prepare to be surprised by this surprise best-seller.
By Kate Henderson