A while back, the New Yorker reviewed Stoner under the headline, “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” It was a clever line, but after Britain’s Waterstones named it the Book of the Year for 2013—and with U.S. sales finally topping 100,000—it may no longer be true. Admittedly, it’s taken 48 years to get to this point and the novel is still far from a popular favorite, but it’s clearly beginning to get the attention it deserves.
John Williams wrote Stoner in 1965, and it fell out of print the following year after sales topped out at a couple thousand. But in 2006, the New York Review of Books gave it a second chance, reissuing it as part of its classic series. Positive reviews and word of mouth led to a quiet revival here and in Spain, Italy, Britain, France, Israel, and the Netherlands.
It’s not hard to see why the novel didn’t catch on immediately. It’s the quiet story of an ordinary man living a sad and painful life at a time when working hard and slogging through were considered virtues and ends in themselves. Stoner suffers through a loveless marriage and an unsuccessful career, and the novel hits so close you can’t help but feel Stoner’s despair.
But if Stoner’s life is ordinary and depressing, its telling is quite the opposite. Williams’ prose is elegant, restrained, and precise, with a timeless quality and beautifully crafted sentences that overwhelm with understated intensity. Its themes of failure and love transcend time and culture.
The book begins with a two-paragraph prologue that no market-driven publisher would allow today. In it, Williams warns his readers of what’s to come with brutal honesty. All that’s left of Stoner, he tells us, is a manuscript his colleagues contributed in his name to the school’s rare books collection.
“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library…. An occasional student who comes upon the [inscription] may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound that evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”
Stoner is the son of poor farmers who bequeath him a quiet stoicism, reticence, and hard-working ethic. He goes to college to study agriculture, only to fall in love with literature, a realization that hits him when he studies Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, a poem of love and loss that hints at the fate awaiting Stoner. Asked to explain the sonnet, Stoner can’t speak. A teacher who will later become his mentor recognizes it for what it is. “You are in love, it’s as simple as that.”
In a touching scene with his parents he tries to explain that this love for literature means he won’t be coming back to the farm. “I didn’t figure it would turn out this way,” his father says, but when Stoner asks if they’ll be all right without him, his father concludes: “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do.”
Stoner’s academic career is modest at best. His devotion to ancient theories of grammar and rhetoric lead him into feuds with colleagues more practiced in academic politics, and Stoner is reduced to teaching low-level courses. He compensates by immersing himself in books, feeling a compulsion to absorb as much as he can.
“Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know."
His love life is even more dismal. He recognizes his marriage as a mistake within days, if not hours, of the ceremony, but his stoicism and resignation prevent him from ending it, even when his mean-spirited wife turns the daughter he loves against him. His only happiness comes when he enters into an affair with a much younger colleague. When his enemies find out, they use it against him.
As much I admire Stoner, when I heard this 48-year-old novel had been named book of the year for 2013, I thought it was more than a little bit odd. But James Daunt, Waterstones' managing director, said the year of publication had no impact on the decision. “This is the book everyone has been talking about in 2013. The very least we can do is name it our Book of the Year.”
Williams, of course, can’t share in the excitement of his novel’s second life. He died in 1994. He wrote three other novels, including Augustus, which shared the National Book Award in 1972.