John Williams’ Stoner: ahead of its time

John Williams’ novel Stoner was one of the most widely read books of 2013, yet 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of its first publication. Initially well-reviewed but virtually unknown in the intervening years, Stoner’s rise to fame and acclaim was all the more remarkable for being prompted almost exclusively by word of mouth amongst readers. 

Williams’ style is understated, subtle, even unprepossessing, so it is perhaps understandable why it was so overlooked. You only need to compare it with the type of literature which made a resounding splash in the same year – Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, for example – to see how it missed the recognition it was due. Stoner is about a quiet, patient man and his realistically slow trajectory from manual labour to academic work – a man who will seldom talk about his sorrows, which are whispered rather than screamed behind less than mysterious narration, though in no less agony.

Certainly the treatment of some issues in the book were ahead of its time: the purpose of academia and disability discrimination take up a substantial part of it, though this does not adequately explain why a novel previously all but ignored took off so spectacularly in the Twenty First Century, when much of its content revolves around the timelessly relevant subject of relationships broken by an unforgiving society. Indeed, Stoner has achieved success far beyond what Williams ever hoped for when he told his publisher in 1963, “I have no illusions that it will be a ‘best-seller’ or anything like that.” But a bestseller it now is.

The characters of Stoner’s wife, daughter and mistress stick in the mind as particularly well-drawn. A deeply touching passage illuminates his daughter’s nature, and the reasons for her miserable dependency on alcohol, “alien to the world, it had to live where it could not be at home; avid for tenderness and quiet, it had to feed upon indifference and callousness and noise.” 

Completely incidentally, this may espress something about the rise of the book itself: it needed the appropriate soil for its natural merits to bloom in the minds of its readers. Perhaps our society is more willing to express its feelings of alienation than was the case 50 years ago, possibly in light of a pervasive digital age – and so is far more receptive to Stoner’s melancholy.

However, if anything encapsulates the character of the book – its quiet courage and empathy in the face of a bleak reality – it is surely the last few days that Stoner shares with his mistress before propriety pulls them apart. He watches “with an immeasurable sadness their last effort of gaiety, which was like a dance that life makes upon the body of death.”