Stephen Elliott on John Williams’ Stoner

Below Stephen Elliott, author of the novel Happy Baby, admires John Williams’ Stoner. (And NYRB Classics will send a free copy of the book to the first person who emails me at maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com Matt Birt.)

I have a problem with dead authors. I prefer to support living authors and to participate in the conversation each generation has over who should be remembered and what art can be said to represent our time. I’m convinced that writers are still publishing brilliant, necessary books, and the pleasure I get from finding one is more than the pleasure of reading a book written fifty years ago that everybody already knows is great. Nonetheless, I just read one of my new favorite books, by a mildly respected but mostly unknown author, who died in 1994.

The book is Stoner by John Williams. It covers the life of a boy raised on a small farm in Missouri in the early 1900s. His parents send him to the new state school thirty miles away to study agriculture. At the university he falls in love with literature, which places him on path to an assistant professorship at the same school, a position he lands primarily from his refusal to serve during the First World War when university instructors became scarce. Following the war he writes a decent, but not great, book, and has an unhappy marriage that bears him an unhappy daughter.

Does this book sound boring? It’s almost impossible to describe any other way. It’s simply the story of a man’s entire life, from the farm to third-tier state college, a handful of minor victories and defeats, and one significant affair the protagonist is not worldly enough to recognize. There are good intentions with bad consequences, gifts that arrive when we least expect them, and finally death.

And yet. . . this book is not boring at all. This book races through the finish line. It is perhaps the greatest example of minimalism I’ve ever read. We often equate minimalism with “show don’t tell” because we pin both to Hemingway. But showing instead of telling and minimalism are not the same thing. Just spend a week reading David Foster Wallace or Tom Wolfe and you’ll know what I mean.

Stoner will pass years in a sentence, stunning the reader suddenly with lines so stark and understated you forget to breathe: “Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve.”

John Williams is aware of the reader, of the time we are spending together, and treats that time preciously; the book becomes impossible to put down. That’s how we end up with paragraphs like this:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

As Stoner “began to know,” you begin to know. You read those sentences and it dawns that everything you’ve been reading for the last thirty pages had been building to that moment but you didn’t know it. Just like life.

It’s no secret that William Stoner dies at the end. We’re told so in the book’s opening:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.

But that didn’t stop me from crying on the plane as I was finishing, heading to New York, and the stewardess was asking if I would like another coffee. I felt I knew Stoner better than I know some of my friends, and I didn’t want to part with this honest, misunderstood man. I would never read a book set in an English department again because I had read the best such book, I wouldn’t need another.

Yes, I’m prejudiced against dead authors, but Stoner is a story of great hope for the writer who cares about her work. Despite never finding a large audience, this novel was brought back into circulation last year by the New York Review of Books Classics. There were people who loved it so much they wouldn’t let it go, they had to keep this book in print. You could say its resurrection proves, once again, that great art overcomes and ultimately survives.


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