Ig Publishing, 2019, 168 pp., $14.95
John Williams’s third novel Stoner was first published in 1965 and, perhaps fittingly for its famously mild-mannered protagonist, received scant attention before sinking almost completely out of sight. One review, eight years after its release, began by plaintively asking “why isn’t this book famous?” Stoner’s reputation steadily revived decades later, with several reissues and the passionate word-of-mouth evangelism of its fans, eventually selling in the millions in Europe and later in America. Stoner’s rescue from oblivion provides another example of how underrated products of American culture sometimes must migrate across the pond to get their due. Stoner is now widely considered a beloved modern classic and a movie version is now in the works, which could be either luminously beautiful or an utter disaster.
Why a painstakingly unsentimental tale of a midwestern farmer’s son turned academic is so moving is the subject of William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, a new book-length study by the essayist and short story writer Steve Almond. Stoner is the kind of book that makes instant fanatics of its readers; Almond approvingly references the old saying about The Velvet Underground’s first record—only a few people bought it when it came out, but everyone who did started a band. There’s no doubt that Stoner, a novel preoccupied with the pursuit of literature for its own sake, converted plenty of its readers into writers. Part of the pleasure of reading Almond’s deeply personal approach to investigating Stoner’s subtle power is how nakedly honest he is about the ways in which the book speaks to his own ambitions, flaws, and fears as a writer and man.
Almond admits that he has lost count of the number of times he’s reread Stoner after first encountering it as an MFA student and pouring through it in one ecstatic night’s reading, where he “wept a good deal, inexplicably though not unhappily.” Ever since, Stoner has been a consistent source of wisdom and insight throughout the cycle of his life, as a professional teacher and writer, husband, father, a son mourning the death of his beloved mother, and as a middle-aged man pondering mortality. Kafka once said that we should read only the books that take an axe to the frozen seas inside of us, and Almond’s sometimes anguished account of his perpetual rereading Stoner is in keeping with this sage advice. “The central reason I keep circling back to Stoner isn’t aesthetic or moral,” he writes. “What I’m after is personal reckoning. Each time I’ve read the book, it has illuminated some new aspect of my own inner life.”
To its credit, Stoner isn’t the kind of book that plays many formal or linguistic games. It doesn’t play any games at all. The bleakness of the narrative provides much of its honesty and also its spare beauty. We follow the naturalistically told story of the rather plain and unassuming life of William Stoner, a son of the Missouri soil who is suddenly converted to the life of the mind by a classroom epiphany with one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Stoner eventually becomes a Medievalist scholar and assistant professor at a small Missouri university. He marries badly, suffers a generally dismal home life because of it, has a brief and doomed affair, deals with a colleague’s attempted career sabotage, and dies. That’s about it.
And yet, of course, even within that ordinary life there are multitudes. Part of Stoner’s ability to move countless readers lies in how the minutiae of this nondescript man’s life is so delicately and surely rendered that it is alchemized into art. You feel for poor Bill Stoner, bask in the quiet pathos of his humdrum existence and poor life choices, and yet as years pass Stoner’s devotion to his calling as a professor starts to feel heroic both because of and despite the innumerable existential odds stacked against him. It helps you to see that there are plenty of Stoner types around, plugging away at their humble passions while time and chance take their inexorable toll.
Almond’s willingness to look afresh at this subtle tale illuminates some of the character’s easily overlooked motivations. For example, Stoner’s wealthy, beautiful, and coldly cruel wife Edith initially seems like little more than a tyrant who relentlessly tramples on Stoner’s emotions during their dreary marriage. Critics of Williams’s work have made this case: that his novels are misogynistic, that Edith is a “vindictive monster.” But Almond’s wife, a novelist herself, insightfully pointed out to him that the horror of Edith’s gilded upbringing is hidden in plain sight. As the narrator of Stoner puts it: “her moral training both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual.”
Something awful must have happened to Edith in her youth that caused her to be entirely unmoved at her own father’s funeral and to smash up her childhood collection of porcelain dolls and flush them down the toilet shortly thereafter. It’s far too easy, especially for male readers, to simply assume the worst when female characters act out; at the same time, it’s far too easy for critics of Williams to write off his characterization as mere misogyny. Almond argues convincingly that there’s an interesting novel waiting to be written “examining the world from [Edith’s] perspective, as a woman passed ruthlessly from one man to another and made ruthless in the process.”
Almond also finds a social critique in Stoner. He usefully points out that Stoner lives through immense social upheaval in his time: growing up poor during the Depression, seeing men beg door to door for the bread that will only allow them to keep begging. Class anxiety runs rampant; the fact that Stoner comes from stoic farming stock is a source of crippling self-doubt throughout his life, especially given a career choice that alienates him from both his disappointed family and his uncomprehending peers. His small group of college buddies is ravaged by conscription into World War I, and the personal toll he suffers speaks eloquently against wartime jingoism. Sometimes Almond’s extrapolations get a little carried away. The 2016 election seems to be lodged like a splinter in too many people’s minds, and it does cause Almond to veer into political rant mode at times.
Genre-wise, Stoner is a campus novel, which is to say it offers an implicit critique of academia. But the depiction of academia in Stoner is less interested in exposing frauds and snobs, as with other campus novels, and more about exploring what it means to pursue knowledge for its own sake. Stoner’s work as a professor isn’t described in depth, but his monkish devotion to his calling as a reader and scholar shines through. Williams wrote to his agent that part of the point of the novel is that “Stoner will be some kind of saint.” Almond approves of Stoner’s undergraduate advisor’s encouragement of his bookish ambition: “don’t you see? It’s love!”
In some ways, Stoner’s biggest problem isn’t just his unassertiveness; it’s his vulnerability to the cutthroat vagaries of the academic life. Stoner suffers this with a conniving colleague, Lomax, who tries to abuse his position in order to promote his own agenda, lifting up a mediocre student capable of memorizing platitudes but not independent thought. Stoner’s great moment of self-assertion comes when he refuses to buckle to Lomax’s pressure to pass his protégé. Stoner argues that the university should be devoted to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, like a medieval monastery, offering a contemplative respite from the heedless bustle of the outside world. It’s a fine sentiment, but it’s not enough to ward off the mendacity of his colleague, who proceeds to punish Stoner for adhering to academic principle.
For his part, Almond’s certainly got the love, but he offers an amusingly self-deprecating account of his own frustrating years as an adjunct, referring to himself as “a Professor of Bitterness” hustling from one gig to another in a beat-up car while trying and failing to model the love of literature to his largely indifferent students. Almond knows what it takes to be a good teacher, and that it’s not always in one’s control. He explains, with an endearingly self-deprecating candor, the jealousy and competitiveness inherent in the writing life and the Sisyphean task of trying to survive in the academic world. At one point, Almond confesses, rather endearingly, that when a former student who had gone on to tremendous success sent a note of thanks to her former teacher, he was “proud beyond measure while also wanting to hang myself.”
Ultimately, though, Almond knows that all the hassle is worthwhile. The passionate pursuits that might seem like madness or folly to the outside world are precisely the most necessary ones. The book ends with a pair of emotionally complex and analytically heartfelt meditations on family—the first about Almond as a father struggling to be the man his wife and children need him to be; the second, a moving account of the death of his beloved, talented, and overworked mother. Almond is able to convey these deeply honest, and at times embarrassing, accounts of navigating such fraught emotional terrain because of his engagement with Stoner’s own struggles.
Stoner wins hearts and minds worldwide because it quietly makes a virtue, sentence by carefully modulated sentence, of the lost art of paying attention. Almond explains that he loves Stoner because “to focus on the inner life today—to read books, to think deeply, to imagine with no ulterior agenda, to reflect on painful or confusing experiences—is to defy the clamoring edicts of our age, the buy messages, the ingrained habits of passive consumption and complaint.” Giving one’s time and attention over to a quiet, subtly observed tale like Stoner might be more attractive than ever nowadays.
Criticism—particularly literary criticism—at its best ought to be seasoned with a robust element of the personal, of the inescapably human, or else it runs the risk of drying up completely and becoming brittle with polemic. We should read in order to live more fully, to engage with the complexities of the human condition more deeply. Criticism like Almond’s that passionately responds to texts with both a judicious eye and a beating heart honors that sacred imperative. And the heartening number of readers who are still moved by Stoner in our ADD-afflicted age offers proof that the passionate study of literature, the kind that Stoner dedicates his otherwise unremarkable life to, is not dead.