Stoner

stonerStoner, 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!

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8 Responses to Stoner

  1. Jeane says:

    I haven’t read it, but now I am curious to do so.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I reviewed this on Oct. 15, 2012, and remember identifying with the protagonist so strongly that I didn’t care how thinly-fleshed-out his antagonists were. And they are, you’re right.
    I still don’t care, though. That’s how my professional antagonists seem to me, and it gave me a particularly ironic twist of pleasure to be reading the book because one of them assigned it.
    I have a nemesis on the faculty who has set himself against me for twenty years. A former associate provost and I are fairly sure that he began this because he had me confused with another dark-haired temporary faculty member when I first came to the college.
    Such things do happen.
    And, of course, I didn’t talk about this in my review because I wanted the student who recommended the book to me to be able to read what I’d written.

    • Jenny says:

      Jeanne, I’m so glad you said this. It’s so true that our enemies often do seem two-dimensional to us — shadowy and evil for no reason. In Stoner, Lomax is sure that Stoner holds his physical disability against him, so at least his motivations are clear. (I’m not so sure he doesn’t, actually.) The small victory Stoner has towards the end is robbed of its pleasure, though, because his whole life is robbed of pleasure by that point.

      I am so sorry you’ve had a nemesis. Ugh, ugh. Such things do indeed happen.

  3. Denise says:

    Oh yes, this : “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.”
    We read this at book club and I was looking forward to discovering the promised classic as per the cover… and I was disappointed! One of us loved it, the rest of us could take it or leave it. It was OK. It was well written and had integrity. But the guy himself… why would you live your life in that nothing kind of way?

    • Jenny says:

      Well, that’s an interesting question. I imagine that by that measure, the vast majority of us do live our lives in a nothing kind of way, don’t we? Stoner has a job, and a sense of the goodness of what he does; he connects lovingly with a daughter and a lover, even if later he gives them up; he has a lifelong friend. That’s not really nothing. I can see the argument that this is just the story of a life, and that it’s well told. It’s the paper-thinness of the people around him that I strongly disliked. It was as if every other character existed only to reflect on him, either to make him miserable or to delight him, as if they were his imaginary friends. The same idea as a manic pixie dream girl, only mostly negative. No one ever did anything unexpected (to him.) I got very bored with that.

  4. Rohan says:

    I didn’t love it either. I agree it is well written, though I didn’t find it spectacular prose by any means. For me too, Edith was one of the sticking points, along with a kind of conservative wish-fulfillment idealization of a certain idea of literature and the academy. In my own post I suggested it was in its own way a version of the “melodrama of beset manhood” that some critics have argued defines one idea of ‘great American novels.’ I really couldn’t understand the enormous Stoner craze that swept (some) bookish circles, except that it was a big marketing triumph for NYR Classics! (This is not to say that those who did love it were deluded, but for me there was just no magic in the book.)

    • Jenny says:

      What a great phrase, the melodrama of beset manhood. Too bad that I find that particular narrative arc a little boring these days, especially when you have to manufacture comically over-the-top villains to beset him.

      I really like your point about the idealization of a certain idea of literature. Stoner’s very conservative and unemotional (which reads as masculine) take on English grammar as the “real” literature is what most critics seem to like best. There’s more than a hint that there’s something wrong with you if you are more enthusiastic than that, or appreciate literature for its aesthetic properties. Perhaps this is being lauded because of the devaluing of the humanities? Stoner is our fortress?

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