Not a book about reefer addicts written by a composer, John Williams’ Stoner is a long-winded novel detailing the whole life of an academic named William Stoner. He goes to university, likes books, becomes a teacher, has a boring marriage, has a good but brief affair, teaches a bit more, dies. That is it.
Stoner has become incredibly popular recently. There is a quotation on the cover from the Sunday Times describing it as “The greatest novel you’ve never read”. This is colossal bullshit. As a) I’ve read it; and b) There are tens of books I can think of that I haven’t read that are broadly considered better than this. Certainly there were, but if Stoner is now of the canon (which I don’t think it should be), maybe everything else will be reassessed.
I haven’t read everything by Virginia Woolf or DH Lawrence yet, for example. Talking of Lawrence, TE Lawrence is an out of favour former genius. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a once-considered great work that now nobody reads. Maybe because it’s crap, I don’t know. I have no interest in finding out.
Stoner is weak in many places. Women are characterised appallingly, and there is the normalisation of inter-marital rape. This is mentioned but then ignored, forgotten about. To a modern reader, this is a pretty serious offence. Stoner is, other than when raping his wife, incredibly passive, he lets every mediocre event of his mediocre life wash over him. When he seems to find happiness in romance with his lover, he lets it fall apart; when he has arguments with other members of his faculty who later get promoted and stop his career or reputation from developing, he doesn’t move to a different university, he just nods and takes the stasis.
The stilted narrative style reflects Stoner’s detachment from the world – there are many hints towards wider events (not just the two world wars, but sexual intrigues amongst his community) but these are never explored with any depth. John Williams is maybe trying to show how little his protagonist considers life outside of books, but this lack of bite, of engagement, is not a thrilling tone for 300 pages.
The ending, though, is great. The last few pages of Stoner thinking about his life on his deathbed works incredibly well, and in fact the whole novel would work much better as a fifteen page short story of a dying academic’s reflective thoughts.
So why the buzz? Why the hype? It’s a nicely written book, but there are plenty of other mid-20th-century books by American men about being middle-class American men of letters. Why has ANOTHER one been added to the list of “books you have to read”? I enjoyed it more than the Updike I read last year, perhaps, but Stoner was not beautifully poetic, heartbreakingly tragic, riotously amusing or a text that gave me a fresh insight into the human psyche.
It is a book of a type, and not necessarily a bad one of that type, but it is a type that I have read enough of. More than enough of.
There is no reason for Stoner to get the attention it has recently got. Read something else.