John Williams’ ‘Stoner’: A triumph of literature over common sense
In case anybody is puzzled as to why there are forces in this world opposed to love, they can do no better than pick up a copy of ‘Stoner’
The subject line simply said ‘Stoner’. The mail was brief: “Have read only five pages. Still, I recommend in case you have not already read it.” I trusted this friend’s judgment. So without much ado, or googling, I placed an order online.
The book—a novel by an American writer named John Williams—arrived in due course, and lay neglected on my bedside for some days. Having spent the better part of my literate life gobbling up fiction—much of it as a part of professional and academic requirement—I had, over the years, developed a vague aversion to it. Or so I believed. But a recent bout of illness left me bed-ridden and physically depleted. Too weak to work but also too restless to rest, I found myself picking up the copy of StonerI had ignored for nearly two weeks.
I skipped the introduction by the Irish novelist John McGahern, and went straight to the opening page. And before I knew it, I was on page 132 or thereabouts, completely charmed, seduced, swept away into a narrative universe set somewhere in the American Midwest of the early 20th century.
William Stoner, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, is the son of a poor farmer who enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture. In the second year of his undergraduate course, while attending a mandatory survey of English literature class, Stoner is asked by his acerbic professor to explain the meaning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Though deeply affected by the poem, Stoner is unable to say anything more than, “It means…it means.”
His patient, methodical, and stoic application of effort that saw him through the various courses in science and soil chemistry don’t seem to work for him when it came to Shakespeare. Troubled, disturbed, and yet fascinated by various literary texts, he eventually abandons agriculture for literature.
He goes on to do a Masters, and then a PhD in English literature. He marries; he has a daughter; he has an affair; and he spends the rest of his life teaching in the same university. There is no suspense in the novel, for we are told on the very first page that Stoner was born in 1891, died in 1956, and did not rise above the rank of assistant professor. Nor was he a remarkable character in any way, for “few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses… An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question.” The novel essentially describes Stoner’s mediocre professional and personal life—etching in crystalline prose his all-round failure as a husband, father, lover and academic—right up to his death by cancer. Stoner’s professional obscurity was matched by the novel’s literary obscurity, as it went out of print a few years after publication.
And yet, this hitherto little known novel about a professor of English literature, published half a century ago (in 1965), and set another half a century earlier, has suddenly set the bestselling charts on fire. From 2002 to 2012, it had sold a total of 4,863 copies. And then, in 2013, from June to November, it sold 144,000 copies. It has sold 80,000 copies in Italy, 200,000 copies in Holland, and was Waterstones Book of the Year in the UK. Novelist Julian Barnes has described it as “a bestseller of the purest kind—one caused almost entirely by word-of-mouth among readers.” The novel’s phenomenal rise from nowhere has left even publishers scratching their heads.
How does one understand this sudden popularity? One clue lies in the fact that its resurgence is more marked in Europe than in the US, where its belated commercial success has evoked puzzlement more than joy or pride. Stoner, in many ways, is the opposite of the quintessential American hero—he was neither interested in, nor pursued, the American dream of material success and prosperity; he was not a doer; he was not ambitious; rather, he was too nice, too decent, and too weak to “cut it”. Plus he was a failure by every conventional measure of success.
And yet, as you turn the final page of the book, and witness the last moments of Stoner’s life, you realize how absurd—and how untrue—it would be to characterize him as a failure.
Where, after all, does one seek the truth of a given life? Can words ever be trusted to convey that truth? The gulf between the external and the internal, between what one perceives of a person’s life, and what is lived and experienced by that person, is something that only literature can bridge, and that too in a very paltry fashion. The world may not think much of Stoner, but in Williams’ vision, he is a hero. And his life, a heroic mission animated by love—in particular, his love of literature.
Stoner, apart from many other things, is also a university novel. It contains some of the most searing set pieces of intra-departmental warfare, and some profound observations on the role of the university and academy in the modern world. One suspects that a large proportion of the readers responsible for the novel’s recent buoyancy might be from the liberal sections of the academic world, which is itself in crisis due to widespread funding cuts, and the infiltration, into its bohemian precincts, of a Shylockian, managerial, and technocratic ethos that seeks a measurable bang for every buck.
Williams, who himself worked as an English professor all his life, has spoken out against the creeping utilitarianism in the humanities. In fact, the retreat of the humanities, and the replacement of values with functions is one of the broader themes in the decay of higher education worldwide as it prostrates at the feet of capital.
If there is—to borrow a management buzzword—one takeaway from Stoner, it is that there is nothing efficient about love or literature. In fact, one might define love as the antithesis of efficiency. Stoner’s love of literature and his inability to act in his own best professional interest are two sides of the same coin. The uselessness and generosity of literature—and the love of literature as expressed in “time wasted” on it—are a bold counterpoint to a calculating culture that demands usefulness from everything, productivity from everyone, and efficiency in every activity.
In case anybody is puzzled as to why there are forces in this world opposed to love, they can do no better than pick up a copy of Stoner. That an obscure book—defying all publishing and profiteering logic—has managed to find its way into the sun all on its own is a great sign that there is still hope for humanity. The triumph of machine values over human ones isn’t as complete as we feared, yet.