Stoner, by John Williams, was first published in 1965. It sold about 2000 copies, then went out of print. In the past few years, however, it has been republished to an almost cult-like following, first in Europe and then in the United States. The critics have gone bananas over it, calling it “masterful,” “powerful,” “a classic.” Morris Dickstein called it a “perfect” novel. Emma Straub called it “the most beautiful book in the world.” Essays urged readers to get a copy as soon as humanly possible, and get going on the enlightenment.
Well… okay. (If you haven’t read it, you might want to stop here; I plan to discuss the book in some detail.) The story of Stoner is this: William Stoner is a man who comes from a farming background, and fully expects to be there all his life. His father sends him to agricultural college, so that he can do a little better on the land than his parents have. While he’s there, he takes a one-semester English survey, and encounters Shakespeare’s sonnet 73. It causes a seismic shift inside him, one he can’t articulate but which changes his entire life: he changes his major (without telling his parents) and becomes a student of literature, eventually taking his Ph.D. and becoming an English professor. This is probably his happiest time, because slowly, inevitably, his quiet life is bled of all meaning and purpose. He refuses to serve in the first World War. He falls in love and marries, but within a month realizes that his marriage is a failure; he has a child, whom his wife uses to manipulate him; he takes joy in teaching, and then a vicious contretemps with his department chair reduces his teaching to a grey nothingness; he has a happy affair, and when others discover it, he has to let her go. The only integrity that remains is Stoner’s lifelong love affair with literature. The words, the structure and grammar, have meaning, and he is a sort of priest at the altar of that meaning. Williams’s prose is reserved, realistic, even wry at times, and is a pleasure to read even when the events are painful.
The idea of the reviewers and essayists who loved this book seemed to be that Stoner is a kind of anti-Gatsby. He’s not the usual American hero; he isn’t rich or flashy; he doesn’t get the beautiful girl; he isn’t, by any normal measure, cool. This is just the story of a life, the story of someone who is a failure by most measures, but is a devoted teacher and scholar, someone who finds meaning even when others have made his life futile.
I couldn’t enjoy the book, however. Williams sets Stoner up as a kind of teacher-scholar saint, much more sinned against than sinning, and others around him are caricatures. I was especially uneasy about the two real villains of the book, his wife Edith and his department chair Lomax. Edith is that all-too-common trope, the woman who has been raised to be a useless society girl. She is so sheltered and repressed that she throws up on their wedding night, and can’t stand for Stoner to touch her. But later, she decides she wants to have a baby, and abruptly turns into a “wild and demanding” nymphomaniac, tearing at Stoner’s clothes and requiring sex every couple of hours until she conceives — and then the switch flips again and she can’t bear his hand on her. After the birth of the child, she’s bedridden for a year, then turns into a hard-edged social butterfly, doing theater, painting, sculpture, and playing the piano for hours a day. And she still finds time to launch a deliberate campaign to use their daughter, Grace, to make Stoner miserable. When Grace falls into despair, Edith still doesn’t change. At no point does she show one moment of tenderness, intelligence, kindness, or self-awareness. She is an absolute two-dimensional selfish troll from beginning to end. One wonders what would have happened if Stoner hadn’t been so self-absorbed.
Holland Lomax, the department chair, might be even worse as a heavy-handed villain, because his evil comes out visibly: he’s hunchbacked and has a limp. He is fiercely defensive about being a “cripple,” and he and Stoner clash over another student who also has a physical “deformity.” Lomax persecutes Stoner for decades, giving him intro-level classes at odd times of the day and threatening him. Later, Stoner falls in love with a graduate student (another two-dimensional character, but this one idealized: intelligent, glasses, agrees with everything Stoner says) and Lomax is the one who threatens to fire her over the affair. I was honestly surprised at this kind of dated nastiness. I expect it in Dickens, but in a book written in 1965?
I don’t necessarily disagree that this book is well-written. But I’ll argue a lot with anyone who says this is a perfect novel, or anything remotely close to it. There are good things about it — there are some beautiful passages, and some interesting things about its construction, and about a man who refuses to engage in war all his life — but it falls down over and over again when it comes to any character but Stoner himself. There just isn’t the depth to it that I was expecting from the raves.
Have you read it? Did you adore it? Argue with me in the comments!