The Fall and Rise of William Stoner

Steve Almond on the Critical and Commercial Resurrection of John Williams' Classic

Because writers so often toil in obscurity, and because nearly all of them believe this obscurity to be unjustified, the tale of Stoner’s critical and commercial resurrection has been invoked repeatedly as a literary article of faith. The saga potently affirms that petulant voice inside every writer, the one that insists publishing is a meritocracy in the end, that posterity isn’t about publishing trends or marketing budgets or hype. Dickinson sent her dark little epics into a world that regarded them as little more than strange birds. Herman Melville figured Moby Dick would be his crowning achievement and was bewildered when it paved his descent into oblivion. The Great Gatsby was dismissed for years as a minor work. The beat goes on.

It’s also important, and oddly inspiring, to recognize the shape John Williams was in when he wrote Stoner. As Charles Shields documents in his scrupulous new biography, The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life, Williams was not exactly burning up the charts. Although he had two novels to his name, he was barely known within the literary firmament.

His first novel, Nothing but the Night, was put out by Swallow Books, a tiny Denver imprint run by the man who would become his mentor, Alan Swallow. Swallow deemed the manuscript “dreary” and “somewhat overdone.” Williams himself was embarrassed by the book within a few years.

His second novel, Butcher’s Crossing, came out with a major publisher, Viking, in 1959. It’s about a young Harvard dropout who travels to the Kansas outback of the 1870s and embarks on a catastrophic buffalo hunt—Cormac McCarthy by way of Emerson. The New York Times dismissed it as a failed western that “contains little excitement and moves as though hauled by a snail through a pond of molasses.”

By the time Williams sent off his third novel, his third marriage was headed south, his previous work was out of print, and the Guggenheim Foundation had declined his application. His agent, Marie Rodell, was no more encouraging about the initial draft of Stoner. “I may be totally wrong,” she wrote, “but I don’t see this as a novel with high potential sale.” Most of the editors who received the novel concurred. One referred to Stoner as a “pale gray character.”

*

There are any number of writers who might have capitulated in the face of so much bad data. Me, for instance. Had I received such a prognosis from Rodell, I would have fired back a note along the lines of this:

Dear Marie,

Stoner is too dull, you say? That was my hunch, too. Fortunately, in previous drafts I had the professor strangle his wife and bludgeon his academic rival with an original folio of The Canterbury Tales. He also decapitates a babysitter because she witnesses one of the murders. Then he abducts his daughter and they set off on a crime spree that carries them from Missouri to the Badlands of South Dakota, where he meets a Native American shaman, who Stoner murders and eats. Would that help?

Steve

Thrilled as I am to have initiated the very unpromising subgenre of Stoner fanfic, let’s stay on point: Williams’ faith never wavered. “Oh, I have no illusions that [Stoner] will be a ‘best seller’ or anything like that,” he told his agent. “The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”

Williams would camp out in a conspicuous spot in the English department of the university where he taught every time one of his novels came out and wait for his colleagues to congratulate him.

As this note suggests, Williams was the temperamental opposite of his fictional creation: a devoted egotist and hedonist who wore ascots and obsessed over his reputation. Shields describes how Williams would camp out in a conspicuous spot in the English department of the university where he taught every time one of his novels came out and wait for his colleagues to congratulate him. They rarely did.

Envisioning this scene, I felt a twinge a pity for Williams. But of course Williams was needy. Of course he had a big ego. How else would he have withstood the setbacks he suffered? How else would he have converted the doubts the world visited upon him into creative fuel?

*

These did not end with the publication of Stoner in 1965. The book received a few kind notices, sold a couple of thousand copies, and sank from public view. One of the lesser known indignities Williams suffered was news that the novel written by his boorish brother-in-law and published a month before his own had sold twice as many copies. As Rodell predicted, Stoner proved woefully out of step with the sensibilities of American readers.

Except that phrases like the preceding one are complete bullshit. There is no such thing as “the sensibilities of American readers.” It’s one of those terms invented by people in publishing so that they can pretend to have some inkling of what books will sell. They don’t.

There are certainly brand-name authors who can be counted upon to move units and books that enjoy massive promotional support, and books that receive rave reviews in major venues and book that respond directly to particular cultural crises. There’s no doubt, for instance, that a work such as James Baldwin’s story collection, Going to Meet the Man, was bound to receive attention in 1965, given that images of Alabama state troopers clubbing civil rights protesters in Selma were splashed across the nation’s television screens. All of this helps in the short term.

But for a work of literature to endure, something more has to happen. Readers have to develop feelings for the book. They have to become obsessed in that peculiar way that convinces them other people must read the book. This sort of evangelism is essential because of the time and attention that novels demand. In this sense, Stoner enjoyed a massive advantage that nobody foresaw. Namely, that its concerns—the redemptive power of literature, pedagogic integrity, the academy as a refuge—were aimed at the very people who were most likely to be passionate readers and influential critics.

*

I don’t say this to take anything away from Stoner. Williams didn’t write the book to pander to starry-eyed adjunct professors like me. It arose, organically, from his own preoccupations as student and teacher of literature. But it’s also true, and not entirely coincidental, that Williams was a pioneer in the world of creative writing programs, one that has expanded exponentially over the past few decades.

There are now more than a thousand such programs in America, all of them stocked with aspiring writers who struggle to convey the joys of reading to disinterested undergraduates, to produce original work, and contend with rivalries, just like William Stoner.

There is a hunger for books that portray the dignity of the academy, and celebrate the life of the mind. Stoner is one of the few novels that honors our idealism.

What’s more, every single person who enrolls in these programs has, like Stoner, discovered in literature a force capable of bringing them in touch with their own inner lives. The rise of MFA culture—so frequently assailed by self-appointed commissars of creativity—amounts to a mass movement of people who have gone in search of themselves.

The gabled absurdities of campus life have inspired a raft of comedic novels (Lucky Jim, White Noise, Moo, Straight Man). But there is also a hunger for books that portray the dignity of the academy, and celebrate the life of the mind. Such earnest motives may sound outdated in a world overrun by the protective pleasures of irony and satire. It’s also how a lot of us feel. Stoner is one of the few novels that honors our idealism.

*

Basically, Stoner became the Velvet Underground of novels. As Andy Warhol famously quipped, that band only had 300 fans, but all of them started bands. Very few people knew Stoner existed when it was published. But a startling number were writers and critics, and virtually all of them became passionate advocates.

The charter member of what we might call the Cult of Stoner was Irving Howe, who cited the book just a year after its publication in The New Republic. “Given the quantity of fiction published in this country each year, it seems unavoidable that most novels should be ignored and that among these a few should nonetheless be works of distinction,” Howe observed. “Stoner, a book that received very little notice upon its appearance several months ago, is, I think, such a work: serious, beautiful and affecting.” By 1973, the critic C. P. Snow opened his review of the British edition with the question every devoted Stonerian has posed since: “Why isn’t this book famous?”

One of the curiosities of this saga is that Williams himself had, a year earlier, won the National Book Award for Augustus, his fictional account of the life of the first Roman emperor. He shared the prize with John Barth. The American edition of Stoner went out of print anyway.

In 1981, the writer Dan Wakefield ran a long appreciation of Williams in Ploughshares, and worked doggedly to convince another publisher to reprint Stoner. Eventually the director of the university press at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville—where Williams had come to spend his final years—agreed to reprint the novel. This reissued edition was out of print by the time it was pressed into my hands, a decade later.

The pattern repeated itself. Writers continued to write paeans, specialty booksellers couldn’t keep the novel in stock, and eventually one of them mentioned this oddity to the editor of the New York Review of Books imprint, which reissued the book in 2006. The literary historian Morris Dickstein reignited interest with a piece in the Times anointing Stoner “the perfect novel.” Soon, prominent novelists from the UK such as John McGahern, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes were trumpeting Stoner.

If the fate of Stoner in America amounted to a series of bonfires, in Europe the book ignited a brushfire, leaping from the bestseller list of one country to the next, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands. It is genuinely perplexing that the story of quiet professor living in the middle of America in the middle of the 20th century would become a sensation in Europe. But I’m going to refrain from making some big, dumb generalization about how European readers are more sophisticated than Americans. I can only speculate.

Perhaps in smaller countries, passionate affiliation to a literary novel goes viral more easily. Perhaps European readers found in Stoner a thrilling departure from the American image most commonly exported overseas, that of men in pursuit of glory by means of restless action, violent expansion, and compulsive egoism. Perhaps they were beguiled by a hero who rejects war in favor of a monastic devotion to medieval manuscripts. Perhaps in the quiet dignity of William Stoner they found the flickering ember of an American enlightenment. Whatever the case, Europeans purchased more than a million copies.

*

I’ve recommended Stoner incessantly since I first read it. Years ago, I foisted the book upon two younger writers with whom I’d just read, though foisted doesn’t quite capture the spirit of imploration involved. A month later, one wrote to confess that she had started reading Stoner but had put the book down, because she had gotten into a big fight with her boyfriend and reading the book was more than she could bear. A second note arrived a few days later, informing me that she had finished Stoner. “It kind of wrecked me,” she wrote. “But it also made me feel—and this is a little hard to explain—that I needed to be wrecked.” I never heard from the other young writer. Sometime later, I learned that she had become an agent.

Perhaps European readers found in Stoner a thrilling departure from the American image most commonly exported overseas, that of men in pursuit of glory by means of restless action, violent expansion, and compulsive egoism.

At the first book group discussion of Stoner I ever led, a former colleague of mine from Boston College appeared, rather unexpectedly. He was an elderly professor of literature whom I had imagined as indifferent to modern novels. He sat in silence until the very end of the evening, when, with a certain hesitant ceremony, he withdrew a faded newspaper clipping from the breast pocket of his sports coat.

He told us that he had been one of the few critics to review Stoner when it was first published and had dismissed the novel as arid and unoriginal, a minor work. I remember him regarding the clipping in bewilderment, as though it were bloody knife that had materialized in his hand. “I can’t imagine what I was thinking,” he said softly. “I suppose I was a young man, jealous of the achievement.”

At another book group, this one large and lubricated by wine, a man stood to address the room. He was in a state of high dudgeon; his cheeks a roaring red. “Why should I read about this loser?” he demanded. “He refuses to fight for his country. His marriage is a nightmare. He gets bullied around at work. He never does anything.”

An awkward pall descended over the room, one broken by a second man who observed, quietly but with no less emotion, that he felt he was reading about his own life, and that William Stoner might as well have been he.

Both men were saying this, I think. It is this feeling of implication—of the novel exposing the uncharted precincts of selfhood, revealing us to ourselves—that causes readers to have such extreme reactions.

*

Here in America, the ultimate measure of cultural relevance is the Hollywood makeover. I am thus duty-bound to note that a team of filmmakers are in the midst of transforming Stoner into a major motion picture. Casey Affleck will star. Joe Wright (adapter of Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina) will direct. Ethan Hawke is an executive producer. I’m certain everyone involved will do their best to honor the book.

Should it come to fruition, the film will be seen by tens of millions of Americans. If even a small fraction seeks out the book, Stoner will become a big deal—inasmuch as a novel can be a big deal these days—and will have completed its sojourn from obscurity to mainstream adulation. William Stoner, or a glittering facsimile thereof, will appear at the Oscars. William Stoner will have a publicity team and an afterparty and a swag bag.

I am working hard here not to be an asshole. But it’s a steep climb. Because much of what makes a book sacred is the simple fact that you make the movie in your head. Your imagination does the work of all that unionized labor listed in the credits. You can talk about the movie afterwards with other people. But you’ve seen a different movie in a different theater, where you sat, alone with yourself.

The right filmmaker would understand this. In fact, the right filmmaker did. His name is Vernon Lott. I met him a decade ago, when I was teaching at the University of Idaho, in Moscow. Vernon, who lived nearby, asked me to appear in a documentary he was making about bad writing, of which I am a frequent practitioner and staunch advocate. After the interview, Vernon, who appeared to be about nineteen, asked if I could recommend any books of good writing. Not only did I recommend Stoner, I told him he should make his next film about it.

A few years later, Vernon wrote to inform that he was making documentary about Stoner. I had my doubts as to whether this would happen, given that his IMDB page lists “janitor” under the other jobs category. But he did eventually show up at my house with a small crew to record my earnest raving.

The resulting film, The Act of Becoming, is an hour long. It consists of a dozen writers and critics and editors staring into a single camera and talking about Stoner, how they discovered the book, why it became important to them. There are long shots of the prose itself, and the occasional pulsing of electronic music.

At the very end of the film, Lott shows each of his subjects in the moments before our filmed interviews begin. We sit there staring into the camera, fidgeting, looking away, smiling nervously and blinking, licking our lips. These excruciating portraits fill the screen for two full minutes. They manage to make the point that every human being, if we dare to watch closely, lives in the midst of tumult. Vernon managed to make a film that captures the artistic triumph of Stoner, which is not just that we witness the life of William Stoner, but that we witness our own.

__________________________________________

William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life by Steve Almond

Steve Almond’s William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life is out now from IG Publishing.

Steve Almond
Steve Almond
Steve Almond is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His most recent book is Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. His short stories have been anthologized widely, in Best American Erotica, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, and The Pushcart Prize. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He teaches at the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, and hosts the New York Times podcast “Dear Sugars” with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed.





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