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Quiet novel goes global

The John Williams novel Stoner is (back?) in the news, now that it’s a best-seller in the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere. How this “overlooked work” about a Midwestern professor of literature, published in 1965, has managed to gain generations of new fans and now a global audience is the topic of a recent essay in The Millions. It notes the importance not only of critical advocacy but also of devoted and innovative publishers—and in chronicling the cycles of its disappearance and re-emergence suggests the book maybe hasn’t been overlooked so much as it has, from an industry standpoint, underachieved.

Writers seem especially to like Stoner, but so do (I suspect) certain types of readers, the kind who relish “restraint and clarity” (qualities that Anthony Domestico rightly cited when writing on our Verdicts blog last September) and who like to let ordinary but expertly dispensed details accrue force and meaning. Then there’s the title character himself, about whom Morris Dickstein in 2007 wrote

[Stoner] is neither a great teacher nor a noted scholar but applies himself to both with an intensity born of love. In literature he senses a depth of human understanding beyond his power to express, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” Williams writes about this with an almost Roman gravity. “It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.”  … The one book Stoner produces is soon forgotten. His distrust of glib brilliance, his concern with ancient theories of grammar and rhetoric, make him look pedantic. Stoner’s cast of mind is monastic, unworldly. He is reduced to teaching menial courses to students who only dimly sense the warmth and conviction he brings to them.

Stoner “demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good,” D.G. Myers wrote in Commentary a couple of years ago. The distrust of glib brilliance, the monastic cast of mind, the muted decision to stay and do some good—maybe these are the things that each new wave of Stoner readers finds so compelling. I find it interesting that Myers, in recently making the case that the 1960s may have been the best decade for American fiction, took up Stoner again, positioning the novel alongside, among others, O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, Percy’s The Moviegoer—and J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban: “[B]oth it and Stoner  … are one of a kind. Nothing else like them—not even their authors’ later books—was ever written again.” 

While The Millions essay necessarily spends time on the practical aspects of bringing Stoner to new audiences (its current publisher has eschewed the word “classic” and uses social media to accomplish what it otherwise might were the author alive to help sell the novel), it at least acknowledges that “tweeting does not make a best seller.… This quiet book has instilled something” in its supporters on the business end—like it has in every reader who’s gone on to recommend it to someone else over the past forty-eight years.

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Just started Stoner today and am half-way through.  It's beautifully written, literary and searingly painful to witness Stoner's suffering to this point in the novel.  

It's on my list now. Menial courses? Students who dimly understand? I hope I have the strength to get through it! I'm reminded of how many times I've picked up and put down Richard Russo's Straight Man. Some things hit too close to home!

I finished the book at 03:00 this morning.  Menial courses and students who dimly understand are the least of Bill Stoner's problems.  Like his parents' bleak resignation in face of a harsh and unfertile land, Stoner passively accepts the cruelty cast upon him by people twisted by others' sins or by the cruel indifference of nature. Some may see Isaiah's Suffering Servant and Man of Sorrows in Bill Stoner.  But no one is healed by Bill Stoner's stripes.  He even fails to protect and nurture the Grace that has been sent to him in the person of his beautiful little girl.  Stoner gets some modest satisfaction toward the end vis-à-vis one his main tormentors (I'm avoiding spoilers) and I suppose he gains some self-knowledge.  Stoner obviously inhabits a postlapsarian world.  The question is -- is there any redemption is this fallen world?  Is there anything beyond this fallenness?

The prose is lean but elegant.  I read it in a day, so while grace may not be abounding in the plot and characters, it definitely exists in John Williams' language.  A novel doesn't have to accord with one's ideas of the Salvific Narrative.  Nonetheless, I would be dishonest if I said that I was edified by Stoner.  I am anxious to hear if I have misread John Williams' fine but troubling novel.

 

Sorry, that's "infertile" not "unfertile" land.

Must novels be edifying?  For me they're more about psychological possibilities.  It's enough that they reveal a person or groups of people in particular circumstancess and how the persons cope - or don't.  For me, a really good novel mainly reveals some person(s) I would  not have met otherwise, and knowing them extends my understanding and appreciation of us poor pseudo-angels.

When I need philosophical answers I look for them in philosophy books, or, in my old age, in a bit of theology.  It's a rare novelist who can address those profitably.  But ISTM there are a good many novelists who address social problems very well, or at least they used to.  Do they still?  (I'm not tempted to read many novels these days.) 

Ann Oliver,

When I said that I wasn't edified by Stoner, I meant it in the sense that I wasn't uplifted.  It was a polite way of saying that I found Stoner to be depressing.  Yes, I was engaged with the character of Stoner.  However, I had no sympathy for the man, only pity.  And frankly, I found myself angry with him.  

As I mentioned in my first comment, the novel is literary.  Bill Stoner is, after all, a professor of English literature. There is a delicious episode where Stoner exposes an intellectually gifted, but unprepared and incompetent graduate student during orals.  There is a moving scene where Stoner, as an undergraduate agricultural student, is transformed by Sonnet 73.  

I too read philosophy when I want it (I’ve read books by Boethius and Josef Pieper in 2013 and am currently reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.)  As far as novels from the Sixties go, I recommend Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate which was published the same year as Stoner

 

What's with Stoner's wife? Completely eluded me.

After Edith Stoner's father dies, she gathers all of her childhood toys and mementos and separates them into two piles.  One pile is made up of things that her father gave her.  After destroying every item, she burns them and flushes them down the toilet.  I think this is the author's way of confirming what the reader might have already suspected -- Edith is a victim of sexual abuse.  This explains, but doesn't justify, her cruel treatment of Stoner and her twisted manipulation of her daughter, Grace.  She destroys the serene and affirming relationship between Grace and her father.  For me, this was particularly painful part of the story.  

 

FG: Thanks, that crossed my mind; but I repressed it.

I've read all Williams' novels but his first, and they are all worthy. His output was not large: Stoner was his 3rd and penultimate novel, and so it's kind of strange that Meyers would make the comment that nothing else he wrote was like it.

I got no beef with "retstrain and clarity," but generally prefer a certain frenetic confusion in what I read. I also like Roman levity over "Roman gravity." Oh, well: it's all a rich tapestry.

The NYRB catalogue is pretty much a sure bet whenever you're casting about for something new to read.

If a friend hadn't given me the book, I would never have read it; and having started it, have never finished it, but fearful that she would ask me about it.

Is the fascination in the Netherlands of a bygone American age with a bygone American character. This tale is so "restrained" that you can hardly tell that anything is going on, even though in the course of it a good deal happens.

Maybe Abe Rosenzweig's "worthy" is the right way to think of it.